After a long and perilous journey, you and your companions finally reach your destination — a sparkling hall filled with marvelous treasures that defy imagination. You want to hurry through the gates and dive headfirst into the riches beyond, but surrounding every entrance are the scariest assortment of ghouls, demons and dudes in three wolf moon T-shirts ever assembled.
As you make your way closer to the door, you shout out, “Hey, is that Joss Whedon?” and when everyone looks in the opposite direction, you and your compatriots rush through the door.
Clutching a laminated pass, your eyes take in amazing sights — hundreds of tables covered with nearly every role-playing or fantasy card game known to man, Dungeons and Dragons sets come to life and more warrior women in chain-mail bikinis than you can shake a sword at.
You’ve arrived at Gen Con: Appropriate for ages 8 and up, with proper adult supervision.
Go back three spaces: What is Gen Con?
Gen Con is the largest gaming convention in the world, attracting tens of thousands of role players, board-game aficionados, cosplayers and more to Indianapolis in August. More than 8,500 events are scheduled during the four days of the convention; more than 300 vendors and artists will sell their wares. Jake Theis, senior marketing communications manager for Gen Con, estimates close to 50 new games will debut over the weekend.
Gen Con has been a huge success for the city and vice versa. The Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association estimates that it had a $36 million economic impact on the city last year, with attendees coming from as far away as Germany and Japan. Promoters have agreed to keep the convention in Indy through 2020.
Theis said Mayor Greg Ballard will be on hand during the weekend — Gen Con’s 10th in Indianapolis — to issue a special proclamation.
Jondi Soper, who will attend her seventh Gen Con next week, calls the event “nerd heaven.”
“It’s a place where I feel I belong, among nerdy people who are interested in most of the same sort of stuff that I am,” Soper said. “The first year I went, I was going through a bad break up, but a friend dragged me along. When I walked through the doors, I forgot all the troubles in my life. For four days, I was on cloud nine, playing games and seeing all the people and costumes. That first time will always hold a special place in my heart.”
The twin Gallifreyan hearts of the convention are probably the vendor room, where exhibitors show off their latest wares, and the gaming room, open 24 hours a day. Dozens of game companies will allow attendees to be among the first to ever play — and buy — their offerings.
“Almost every imaginable game is going to be played at some point over the weekend,” Theis said. “Gen Con has been around for 45 years, so we have multiple generations of players, parents and kids, all playing these games together.”
Chelie Herthel, co-owner of Saltire Games in Lawrence and one of the sponsors of the convention, said board games are stronger than ever in the U.S., due in part to the still-struggling economy.
“It can cost $120 for a family of four to go to dinner and the movies, but only $60 for a nice board game they can play again and again,” Herthel said.
Considering the amount of activities planned — the introduction of Star Trek: Catan (a sci-fi take off on the popular Settlers of Catan board game), the inaugural Magic: The Gathering World Cup, and the tapping of the official beer of Gen Con, Sun King’s Ale of Destiny, to name just a few — the $80 price tag for a four-day pass seems almost criminally cheap for the hard-core gamer.
Theis said the biggest news will likely come from Wizards of the Coast, which will announce major changes to the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game in front of an expected capacity crowd.
Local fan Stephen King (not the horror author) claims he stayed awake almost the entire four days of his first Gen Con, spending the time he would have been sleeping in the 24-hour gaming room.
“There’s almost too much going on the entire time,” King said. “You’re always making tough choices about what to do.”
Another big attraction is the auction room, where gamers bring their forgotten and hard-to-find games to be sold to the highest bidder. Last year, the games ranged from the forgotten (such as Finance and Fortune, a 1936 Monopoly rip-off), to the tasteless (a 1970s-era Sinking of the Titanic game that had the cardboard luxury liner sink under the waves) to the undeniably odd (Medfly, another 1970s game that pitted California Gov. Jerry Brown against the agricultural scourge).
Hundreds of attendees make periodic stops to check out upcoming auctions, prowling for a long-lost game from their childhood.
Want to play a real life game of D&D, move ahead one space
One of the highlights for many attendees is the 45,000 square-foot True Dungeon game, sort of a Dungeons & Dragons game come to life. Groups of adventurers can choose among several different quests, each requiring puzzle-solving skills and teamwork. In order for each group’s wizard to cast a spell or the paladin to attack, the individual must perform a skill-appropriate test. If he or she passes, the group moves on; if not ... well, not everyone’s character makes it out alive.
Have a significant other who prefers more down-to-earth activities? Gen Con hosts more than 60 events like wine tasting, yoga and knitting to keep them occupied while you’re on a quest.
You’re likely to see more redshirts and Star Fleet insignia than in previous years. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura during the original series and subsequent movies, and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Wil Wheaton will be the guests of honor at Gen Con this year.
A geek icon of the highest order, Wheaton is a well-known gaming fanatic, hosting the Table Top series on fellow Internet celebrity Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry YouTube channel. It’s likely the frequent Big Bang Theory guest star would be attending the event even if he wasn’t being paid by the promoters. (Rumors that he’s being paid in 20-sided die and Magic: The Gathering cards couldn’t be confirmed.)
Spin the wheel! Will it land on nerdy power pop or Klingon ballet?
“I posted a generic comment like ... come see Five Year Mission at Gen Con and had our fans repost it on Twitter,” Fark said. “We never know what it's going to take to get a star's attention so we figured it would never get a reply. After just a couple of hours of our fans tweeting like crazy, he responded with something like, 'I get it. But now you're just spamming me.’
"We apologized immediately and had our fans back down. He took it in stride and accepted our apology and said, 'No hard feelings. It's pretty awesome that you have so many enthusiastic fans!’ Hopefully we didn't scare him off too bad, and we might still be able to convince him to at least stop by the show or at least hand him a CD or two.”
As to be expected of a band that’s not only named after a phrase in the original Star Trek opener, but also crafting a song for each of the series’ 79 episodes, the band members are all hardcore geeks. Even if they weren’t playing Friday night at the Westin Ballroom II, they’d still be walking the convention floor, taking in the sights and sampling the gaming wares. Fark hopes this year’s gig will be less smelly than last year’s performance.
“When we played at the Tilt Arcade, they asked us to park at the loading dock in the basement,” Fark said. “It turned out the basement was also the site for multiple dumpsters and grease traps from local restaurants. The smell was awful. It wafted all the way up to the 4th floor through the service elevator. It was so bad that by the end of the night, we smelled like hot, wet garbage. I actually had to throw away the shirt I was wearing.”
Indy-based world-music band Il Troubadore will play more otherworldly tunes when they perform their Klingon ballet Friday afternoon. Titled wa' SaD ram wa' ram je — which translates to "One Thousand Nights and a Night in Terran" — is the story of a Klingon warrior who returns to his homeworld after ten years only to find that his wife, believing he had perished in battle, is searching for a new mate. Unrecognizable by friends and family as a result of his battle scars, he must triumph in a song competition to win back his wife. If he fails, he dies.
Because the ballet will be performed entirely in the original Klingon, the musicians will be in full costume (it’d be fairly silly otherwise). Local belly dancers in interstellar garb will perform alongside the band, who will also be part of the roving entertainment throughout the convention.
“I think what we enjoy most is just the response of convention attendees to us,” said the Klingon Music Project’s Jon Silpayamanant. “More than half the time we spend at any convention is usually getting our picture taken with someone — that's part of the fun! I think for all of us it will just be great to experience the convention as a whole rather than on sporadic days when we happen to have some time. We're pretty much going to be there from the beginning until the end.”
Whoever has the most photos, wins.
The highlight for most fans is walking the convention floor and coming face to face with a living, breathing Orc, zombie or superhero. For many of the cosplayers, the convention is the culmination of up to a year’s work on a costume.
“I've been playing dress up since I was a little girl,” said Amanda Lupfer, aka Mixtress Mandy. “I had a huge box of costumes, secondhand prom dresses, and tons of shoes. I almost never wore real clothes when I was at home. My favorite as a child was to dress up as Sailor Moon and run around the house and telling anyone who would listen, 'In the name of the moon, I will punish you!’"
Soper — who goes by the moniker Ruby Red among her D20 Girls cosplay collective — majored in costume design in college, giving her the needed skills to put together some intriguing costumes, like Cheetara of the Thundercats and My Little Pony’s Twilight Sparkle, as well as a Doctor Who-themed TARDIS dress that always gets comments.
Cosplay is a growing passion for Soper, and she dreams of one day having enough money to be able to create more intricate costumes. She said some of the more complicated costumes can cost thousands of dollars to construct.
Not all cosplayers are as skilled with a needle and thread or glue gun. An old-school Nintendo nerd, Lauren Guilkey has only been cosplaying a short time, but is quickly becoming a star on the convention circuit thanks to her portrayals of sexy characters such as Black Widow and Silken Floss from the Spirit comic book. She’s had costumes specifically made for her by designers, but she’s just as comfortable piecing together an outfit from Goodwill finds.
All of the cosplayers interviewed encouraged fans to approach them for photos and to ask questions about their costumes.
“I love the looks that people give me when I pump gas in a maid outfit, go to a bar in my Victorian bustle dress, walk through Target in a Doctor Who inspired outfit, or go to Panda Express as a Sailor,” Lupfer said. “I think I've made it a must to go to a normal place in costume at least once per convention.”
Spin the bottle? Maybe if you’re lucky!
Guilkey will host a cosplay-themed party Thursday night at Hyde @ Blu, which is sure to attract a huge crowd. Whether it’s at the party or on the convention floor, you don’t necessarily need to roll a 20 charisma score in order to get to know some of the cosplayers better. Lupfer says fans of her cosplay often ask her out, and she’s said yes in the past.
“As long as I'm not seeing someone already, I will usually at least give them a chance,” Lupfer said. “I mean, we obviously already have things in common.”
She’s not alone. Soper admits one of her costumed friends met her now ex-boyfriend at a Bloomington horror convention. But both advise budding lotharios to be genuine and courteous.
“Most guys at the conventions are aware of what they can and can’t get away with; they’re pretty respectful,” Soper said. “If they want to get to know you better, there are plenty of public places at the convention to go and have fun or sit down and talk. A lot of the smaller conventions will even have speed dating (with people in costume)!”
Collect your prize
But cosplay isn’t just about getting slobbered on by adoring fans. One of the most popular events at Gen Con is Saturday’s costume contest. Hundreds are expected to enter, but only a handful will walk away with coveted medal.
Having an intricate costume can help your chances, but several cosplayers said the person behind the latex and makeup is the most important element.
“The key component to cosplaying is enthusiasm,” said Lupfer, a self-confessed “half-elf sorcerer with an abyssal bloodline" in the popular Pathfinder role-playing game. “It doesn't matter how good your costume is, who you are cosplaying, or how much it cost. If you are lackluster, it ruins all the hard work. Someone can have bought a $500 custom-made cosplay but if they look like they don't care to be wearing it, the little girl in the hand-me-down cheap Halloween costume whose smile never leaves her face is the better cosplayer.”
Soper echoed similar thoughts.
“Your costume doesn’t have to look exactly like the character,” Soper said, “but you should capture the essence of the character. Put in a little bit of yourself, and let your personality shine through.”