I: The Last Man Standing
Gen Con 7, Lake Geneva, 1974. College student and lifelong lover of games Timothy Kask had never been in a room with more than 12 gamers in his life before. But game designer Gary Gygax had invited Kask to come - and Kask wanted the chance to meet the inventor of Chainmail, then the most popular fantasy game in the land.
He'd been corresponding with Gygax for years, before Gen Con had even been established, but this was an ideal opportunity for a face-to-face meeting. Kask says Gygax wanted him to try out a new game he had designed - Dungeons and Dragons. Before long the game would conquer the world, and Kask would join Gygax's company, TSR, as the first full-time employee in 1975.
He would spend several years helping establish the company that would dominate the field. But he really knew he was in the right, history-changing place when he first met Gygax at that dealer's hall in Lake Geneva.
"I'm not a real religious guy, but when I walked in, I had this feeling wash over me, like I was home," he says. "It was an awe-inspiring event. Of course I knew rationally that there must be thousands of gamers in the world, but I had never seen hundreds in one place at the same time."
Founded in 1968 by Gygax, Gen Con has become, over the years, gaming's mecca. There have been imitators, but Gen Con was the first, starting with a few hundred in Lake Geneva, then popping up at various places over the years, including a lengthy stint in Milwaukee, before settling into its long-term home at the Indianapolis Convention Center in 2003.
The convention brings together gamers, creators, industry luminaries, costumers, performers and the occasional celebrity into one sprawling complex (with leakage into the city at large, particularly at night). The 45th Gen Con brought 41,000 attendees to Indianapolis in 2012; we might not score quite those numbers for a non-anniversary year, but attendance is still likely to reach the high thirty-thousands.
Kask, who we might call one of the last men standing from GenCon's formative era, left the gaming industry in the early 1980s. Flash-forward nearly 30 years to 2006, where he was invited back to the convention as a celebrity auctioneer.
Even though Kask knew about his reputation in the field as the founder of the well-loved Dragon magazine and one of the TSR old-timers, he says he felt just a bit self-conscious hearing the emcee's highly complimentary introduction, not to mention overwhelmed by the thunderous applause when he stepped on stage. "A thousand strangers giving me this huge clap!" he says. "I was really shocked."
But what struck him most about his first Gen Con in decades was just how friendly Indianapolis was. "There were certain families in Lake Geneva who made a point of not being in town when the weirdo gamers came!" he says. "We had that weirdo soubriquet even then. And now I'm in Indianapolis, Indiana, and they're going 'Welcome, welcome, welcome!' I thought I must have been inhaling fumes as I drove tdwntown and saw banners festooning every lightpost with signs welcoming Gen Con. 'Well,' I told myself, 'This certainly has changed!'"
Still producing games as part of Eldritch Entertainment, Kask represents a disappearing breed. Dungeons and Dragons co-creators Gygax and Dave Arneson have passed away, and anyone working at TSR postdates him.
He says only a small handful of individuals - all of whom he can name off the top of his head, including Mike Carr, the only person to have attended every single Gen Con - go so far back in the gaming world. "I'm the last one of the original TSR crew that's still actively producing gaming material," he says.
II: The Humble Author
Years ago, at your reporter's first Gen Con, I was watching a new game get introduced, alongside a small crowd. An unusual game, something about light and sound matching. And the woman standing next to me struck up a conversation about the mechanics. I turned to find a face that graces at least a dozen hardback books on my shelf: that of Margaret Weis, a legendary fantasy author whose work dates to the early 1980s, and co-creator of the Dragonlance world, which has given birth to hundreds of novels and become one of the most popular gaming worlds ever devised.
And, of course, all I could think was, "Be cool, be cool, don't be a crazy fanboy; it's only the architect of your entire teen pop culture years after all." We talked a bit and parted ways, with the main lesson not lost on me: At Gen Con, the border between fan and creator is sometimes so thin as to be nonexistent.
When I relate this story to Weis during a much more recent conversation, she responds with a gentle, self-deprecating laugh. It's fueled by the mirth of someone who has heard such a story many times before, and yet remains vaguely surprised anybody would be that impressed by her.
"I really enjoy the interaction with the fans at Gen Con," she says. "I've been to many, many conventions around the world, but there's just something about Gen Con. People come to play, and whether you're from Italy, the UK, Australia or Japan, everybody speaks the same language of games. It's absolutely remarkable. It's my favorite convention and the one I am determined to go to every year."
Which of course means coming back to Indy.
"We love this town, absolutely," she says. "Indianapolis is so welcoming; the throw everything open to us. The restaurants change their menus. One year somebody had a special 'Dragonlance' men, which was really neat. Nobody laughs at the funny gamers. I really look forward to meeting all my friends every year."
And indeed, the whole thing can carry the tenor of a family reunion, or perhaps reunion of summer camp friends re-connecting summer after summer. "This is the only time of year I see Tracy (Hickman, the other Dragonlance co-creator) and a lot of other people in the industry I've known for so many years. We make a point of having a dinner with Dragonlance fans Saturday night."
One of the biggest changes in Gen Con over the decades, she says, is a move towards broader family diversity. "There were almost no women at my first Gen Con, and now it's probably equal numbers men and women," she says. "We dedicate Sunday to family day, where you can get in a whole family for the price of one admission, and you see a lot of parents introducing their kids to tabletop gaming. Not video games, but face-to-face games where you sit around and interact."