This year GenCon turns 40 (just like me). But 10 and 20 years ago I attended it for the first and last time respectively. August 6th (Wednesday) was the tenth anniversary of my last trip but my iPhone prevented me from completing this post in a timely manner. However, according to Wikipedia, GenCon 21 (1988) began on August 18 so I’ll just say I’m early for the 20th anniversary!
On my first visit, I totally forgot it was happening in 1988. My new friend Neal was going and we even discussed it at great length days before. Heck, when I was first getting into D&D as a kid GenCon seemed to be this Holy Grail of gaming I never thought I would ever see unless I won the lottery. Back in North Dakota, my high school friends even razzed me over choosing Marquette because the event had moved to Milwaukee by 1985.
Despite Neal getting me back into gaming through his RoleMaster campaign over the Summer, WMUR and surviving until school started took precedence. Then I stumbled upon the festivities while killing some time downtown. It looked too interesting to pass up. I rushed to the ATM, bought a one-day visitor badge and took a tour of the whole thing. Definitely a Nerdvana on numerous levels because it wasn’t exclusively about roleplaying games like D&D. There were costumes, movies, collectables, computers, videogames; think of it as a comic book or Star Trek convention with much more to do than shop.
The primary purpose of GenCon is to play in tournaments, test new games on a random audience and meet gamers from around the world. After taking it all in, I thought to myself, “if I’m living in Milwaukee next Summer, I am so going to this.”
And so I did from 1989 through 1993 and each GenCon contains strong memories.
1989 was disillusionment. I naively thought that GenCon attracted some of the best players around. HA! College and Neal’s game had erased my memory on how RPGs are a magnet for the socially retarded. Two doofuses completely ruined the superhero game I was in with their Min-Maxed (a form of cheating) characters. The silver lining was Mayfair Games’ preview of their revised DC (Comics) Heroes system. I was impressed and couldn’t wait to buy it in the Fall.
I fared better in 1990 by learning how to score a free badge as an RPGA (like a D&D league) judge for the DC Heroes game. My adjusted expectations over the other players’ behavior helped and guided my event selections. Participating in TSR’s marketing survey was a surprise; I think I was selected to represent the deodorant-using segment.
Then 1991 had the impromptu job interview with GDW. Making Steve B’s acquaintance was the better memory. When I got him to tell me all about GDW’s use of Macs to lay out its publications he showed his enthusiasm. He had been subjected to hours of nerds droning on and on about their D&D characters. I also played in a DC Heroes event with my future Central Illinois roommate Greg. Running into Beualah high-school chum Jon bordered on miraculous yet we failed to keep in touch afterwards as I was hoping for a renewal of our friendship.
I already covered 1992 thoroughly here.
Going in 1993 was a mistake. The wounds from GDW were still too raw to really enjoy playing and socializing. I didn’t find much solace in my former employer’s dire state thanks to Gygax’s Mythus tanking and the poor reception of Traveller: The New Era. The avoidance I was getting from my TSR contact over the freelance assignment knowing that I did poorly on it foreshadowed our next conversation being unpleasant. Had I known how much leeway TSR allowed on editing, I could’ve done better. Then again, I probably would not have since I was trying to juggle the work, my boring DG job and having to move back in with Grandma all at the same time. A sour time I should’ve stayed away from and saved myself a couple hundred bucks.
One hilarious thing at the 1993 convention was the debut of a little game called Magic: The Gathering. I didn’t think much of it because a dinky company called Wizards of the Coast published it. Their track record until then wasn’t impressive so no one predicted what would happen. Had I known that Lisa Stevens (she made Vampire a hit in 1991) was involved with Wizards, I would’ve bought stock with money borrowed from my grandmother! By the Fall of 1993 Magic cards became the crack epidemic of my local hobby store. The rest is history.
Relocating to Austin prevented me from extending the streak to six years. I kept telling Doc I had tentative plans for it in 1994. Too bad I lacked the money let alone the vacation time. The window to go passed and I never had any serious interest in going any longer. My short-lived D&D campaign with Doc being indefinitely shelved contributed to gaming getting mothballed in my life as well. Never mind all the closet space occupied by a half-dozen boxes of the junk.
By a stroke of luck, I got to see what turned out to be my last GenCon in 1998 instead.
Originally when I left North Carolina, the plan was to go straight to Austin and loaf around the apartment I would be sharing with Mel. Steve B convinced me to take the detour through the Midwest for GenCon instead. As an artist he was granted two exhibitor badges, one for him and another for anyone he chose. I took him up on it which made my trek back to Austin a mini-vacation. Plus it was a $50 bargain!
Sadly 1998 was a GenCon shrouded in gloom. Many of the publishers were on the ropes (FASA) or had collapsed (West End, TSR). The blame was placed on computer/console versions of RPGs and the aftermath of too many collectible card games; after Magic, there were dozens of those boring things. Wizards of the Coast being D&D’s savior in 1997 “didn’t seem to matter” was a frequent litany from Wizards’ critics, namely a former WE guy trying to woo the Star Wars license away. I wasn’t concerned. I knew gaming would live on, it just wouldn’t be as successful like it has been in the early Eighties, electronics had closed the gap and solved two major problems: “remembering” all the rules and finding others to play with.
The non-gaming elements were awesome though. Star Trek‘s John DeLancie, Robert Picardo and Jeri Ryan were there. Four people from the original Lost in Space show too; I had a great time meeting Mark Goddard (the original Major Don West). I also got an autographed picture of Claudia Christian from Babylon 5 for myself and a friend I’d be seeing at Apple in a week.
Outside the convention, or in the real world, I visited Nelson and Tammy one evening and my cousin Leesa with her husband Joe on another but now they had kids! Alex and Sara. I saw old friends: Phil and Lazz namely. I completely missed seeing my sensei Lester; not to worry, he’ll be visiting Austin in mid September. Now if Lazz would call me or write me, I’d be thrilled.
I spent way too much money at these things yet I had a great time geeking out. All the memories of re-encountering “missing” friends or making new ones made it worth more than any of the tournaments I won or placed in. GenCon was an effective way to recharge my depleted batteries before I dove back into school and it did the same thing for me on the madness Austin would turn into.
Oddly, my wife still wants to see this thing. I thought Somara would take my “war stories” as a warning to avoid this rather pricey trip to play D&D with some other town’s annoying monty haulers, power gamers and socially inept. Then again, she has been to several diehard SciFi conventions. If it were still in Milwaukee, I’d probably budget a vacation there. Unfortunately the company which now owns GenCon (Hasbro Toys sold off the rights) is in some kind of re-organizational bankruptcy and it now happens in India-no-place, a city with nothing else to do or see when the convention is closed. My friends Flynn and Leslee attending every Summer aren’t helping me make my case against going. One day we probably will go, Vegas just takes precedence this year.