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I was there!

By Steve Darlington


Made it to the top of the geeky world, ma!

Long waits. Crappy games. Organisational screw-ups. Smelly gamers. It's just an ordinary con.

24-hour anime screenings. The morning stampede to the Heroclix booth. Passing Gary Gygax on the escalators. Latex fetish nuns. This is no ordinary con.

GenCon 2002 was my first and Milwaukee's last. This document then can act as an introduction for those who have never been, and an historical record for those times that may never come again. This is the GenCon that was...

The first piece of advice I can give to anyone doing GenCon is get yourself a sponsor - someone who has been there before. Without the help of Mr Joe Donaghue, I may have still got to GenCon, but I wouldn't have found the best games, nor successfully negotiated the registration day, nor found a place to live, nor remained sane in the face of all the stress. A helping hand does much to ease the confusion that is inevitable upon encountering a game convention hosting some twenty thousand people.

The view out my window: Milwaukee awaits!I was staying in Sandburg Halls, at the University of Wisconsin. For some reason, this place is much maligned by GenCon old-hands, but given its very cheap prices, its clean and comfortable rooms, its excellent on-site services and how ridiculously easy it was to get from there to the con each day, it seems that its bad reputation is far from deserved. Which brings us to the second rule of GenCon: don't believe everything you hear.

The third rule is pre-register. Not necessarily your events, but if at all possible, get your badge sent to you before you turn up. Picking it up on the day is better than registering at the door...but not much. It's a matter of waiting two hours instead of four. Then you have to wait another two hours in the games line.

As an aside: merchants of both snacks and games are missing an opportunity here. People in line are bored, and bored people are motivated customers. Just one guy with a matchbox tray full of Cheapass games would make a killing. But I digress.

Lacking games to buy or play, I instead busied myself in line by selecting RPGs and other diversions to dally in over the coming weekend. Thankfully I had two hours to do it, because this is no easy task, but given the line and the fact that it is a lot easier to do it with the program than online (and nobody wants to print out the 120 page pdf), picking your games on the day is not such a bad idea.

The Arena, where the Living Force and Living Greyhawk games were being played. The really scary thing is that this was only a tiny chunk of all the games going at any one time. Allow plenty of time for it, however, as it is a subtle and complex task. Approach the 50-page catalogue with a plan and a philosophy or you will be overwhelmed by the hundreds of RPGs, CCGs, LARPs, seminars, card games, miniature games and miscellaneous events, running every hour from 8 in the morning until 11 at night (or later), found in more than a hundred locations, spread over five different buildings...only with a strict rule and a clear idea of what you want can you hope to cut this down to something manageable.

And of course, no matter how carefully you plan your schedule, upon arriving at the desk, it will be instantly destroyed when you find out half your games are already full. So if you don't book early, be sure to have plenty of back-ups ready (I had five options ready for each session) - and a handful of Generic tickets, just in case.

The best suggestion I can give for scheduling is this: do not try to do everything. In fact, I recommend only scheduling two games a day, three at the most. There is so much to see and do besides gaming that you'll be selling yourself short if you try to game too much. On my last two days, I had just one game a day. Typically, the games are high quality, too, so one game will fill you up for a day, and playing too many in a row could suck out all the catharsis.

Scheduling is a headache, but get it over with on Wednesday, and it'll never trouble you again, and whatever you sign up for will be good. So don't worry about it too much, or spend too much time on it. Unlike, say, the guy behind me in line who had loaded the PDF file into excel, then written a JAVA script to sort it by preference, then break it down into a timetable, and then had uploaded his finalised timetable into his palm pilot. Which was fine, but unfortunately, he seemed determined to explain the finer points of his program and his table to me, well beyond the point of caring.

He wasn't the only freaky geek I met over the weekend, but the truth is, he wasn't one of many. Yes, there are certainly some worrying types walking the halls - hundreds if you include those wearing elaborate-to-the-point-of- obsession costumes of Klingons, Stormtroopers, medieval wenches, armoured knights, fairies, anime characters and people with dragons on their shoulders - but if you're not already used to the latter, you need to go to more cons. Indeed, because of the huge amount of people at GenCon, and the huge amount of costume merchandise (and cool T-shirts) available, by Sunday it's the people without the Lunch Money t-shirts or fairy wings who seem odd, and the stormtroopers hardly raise an eyebrow anymore. And the really disturbing freaks - the strange, smelly, frighteningly socially maladjusted types - are actually pretty rare.

At least, as long as you stay out of the board game area. Zing!

I mentioned things to do besides gaming - and there are many. Besides socialising at Milwaukee's many restaurants and clubs of the evening including the famous Safe House, which I never actually got into because it was packed), there is plenty to keep you occupied. Various designers and companies host parties, drinking sessions and breakfasts (Tracy Hickman's Killer Breakfasts are a long-standing tradition), in addition to their scheduled seminars, signings or special events in their exhibition booths.

Of course, every second booth will also be running demos of whatever card games, board games and RPGs they are selling, right around the clock. Computer games also feature heavily, both inside the hall and throughout the main convention centre, and are a great way to kill some time if you manage to get yourself on a console. You can also win prizes if you get into the Everquest arena battles, or if you get yourself a ticket to spin the infamous Wizards of the Coast wheel. Meanwhile, scattered in the halls and tables outside the gaming rooms are people playing pick-up games of every card game, board game and computer game you can name - and a few RPGs as well. And if you can't find a game to play, buy, or read, or a celebrity to talk to, the anime room runs films 24 hours a day, and the film room has a similarly heavy schedule of SF and fantasy classics.

To my mind, this is the best thing about GenCon: the atmosphere. Like any con, the simple act of gathering together a group of like-minded people changes the way you think and act; in that rarefied atmosphere, freaky costumes become the norm and every gaming reference will be understood; the colours we normally only bring out on special occasions can now be worn as bright as hell, 24 hours a day. The gaming never turns off.

This is true of any con, but the sheer size, energy and money behind GenCon takes this a new level. The whole town becomes a gamer-zone, and the people know who you are. Shops welcome GenCon attendees, the conductor on the train recognised us on sight - and it was "us", not just me, because there were so many people going up on Wednesday that no matter which carriage I picked, I would have found another group of pilgrims, complete with their black t-shirts and satchels.

The costumes are better, more elaborate, more ubiquitous. The horde of geek toys is endless - the sword shops are bigger, the T-shirt slogans funnier, the dice more and more expensive. The money flows faster and the streets are crammed with gamers. Soon, you think nothing odd of passing D&D's Jonathon Tweet in the convenience store, or coming home at one a.m. to find the common room of the hotel swarming with HeroClix players (both of which I did). You get up in the morning, you go game, and you come home to sleep, then you do it all again, and during those four days, there is nothing more natural, nothing more easy, nothing anyone else wants to do more than sit down and play a game. We all come from the same place and are thinking the same thing - and at GenCon, there's THOUSANDS of us. And some of them are famous, too.

It's wild.

So what did I actually do at GenCon, and what's new and cool on the gaming scene?

Wednesday night was host to the annual Diana Jones Award for excellence in roleplaying. As host and MC James Wallis explained, the award was not designed to replace or overshadow the Origins awards, but to supplement; awarding not always a person or a game, but any designer, product, event or trend which has proven the most significant that year. This year the nominees were world-famous game designer Robin D. Laws, The Dying Earth RPG, Michael Oracz' De Profundis and Ron Edwards' Sorcerer.

Ron with Diana Jones award (speech)Tracy HickmanLast year's winner, WotC supremo Peter Adkinson made the announcement and introduction of the winner - Mr Ron Edwards. Ron's short acceptance speech called for other designers to see the changes in the industry that the success of Sorcerer and other creator-owned works was presaging. Later, in discussion, he told attendees that the award should really be considered as given to the indie-RPG webportal The Forge as well, and all those who made it successful.

Also that night, nigh-legendary game and game-novel author Tracy Hickman received his GAMA Hall of Fame award, which he had not been present to accept at the Origins Awards ceremony itself. Tracy devoted most of his speech to thanking his wife, and both he and her received standing ovations from the some-250 game designers and writers present.


Click here for pictures

Despite the heavy drinking at the ceremony, those same game designers managed to reach the exhibitors hall by 9 am the next morning - or at least their lackeys did - with plenty of time to set up before the first wave of customers arrived at 10. Before the chaos, I managed to snap a few pictures of the creators with their creations...

So what did I actually play at GenCon? Well, I began that Thursday morning with a game of GURPS Traveller, which wasn't particularly enjoyable because I got the feeling the GM had only been handed the adventure about ten minutes prior to running it. Still, this was no fault of his or the game, and I managed to win a copy of GURPS Vehicles for my portrayal of Meg. Which goes to show another difference you find at GenCon - one session alone can win you a prize of considerable value. The next day I received a free Children of the Sun shirt at the end of that game. As someone who has never won a gaming prize before, I was very pleased.

I followed my GURPS game with an introduction to Exalted, which suffered from being four hours long instead of two as had been advertised, and from having way too many players. With organisation screw-ups and mediocre games, it looked like GenCon would be just another con. But the saving grace of GenCon comes when you get to play games with the designers, as I did next. Rich Ranallo dazzled me and just one other guy as he ran us through a superbly written adventure for Starchildren. One guitarist, one bassist, the only two guys who can stop our best friend from becoming a terrorist, assassinating a politician and ending the revolution in one blow.

Later in the week I also got to play the roman RPG FVLMINATA with designer Jason E. Roberts, and it was a masterful session. The second edition of FVLMINATA has been released and it's even sharper and more polished for it - and the new cover is superb.

Probably the highlight of the con was my turn at the infamous Cthulhu Masters tournament. Our small group of colonists found out just what happened on the island of Roanoke all those years ago. With four GMs/NPCs and some of the best roleplayers I've ever met, the intense atmosphere created during this game exceeds anything I've ever played before, including LARPs - and for once, the plot was equal to it. If you ever get to GenCon, move heaven and earth to get into these games.

I finished off the week with a demo game of Silver Age Sentinels. Once again, goodies were presented as all of us got free copies of the quick-start rules to keep. With these we were also able to quickly generate our own characters, which made for an enjoyable and unexpected change of pace. The game is fast and intuitive, so that there was plenty of time for us to make characters, learn the rules and have three big smack-down fights within the our hours. Anyone interested in a great, easy system for supers should definitely check out SAS.

And if you don't like the Tri-Stat system (now with d10s instead of d6s), SAS also comes in a D20 version. If that's not your cup of tea, then wait a few months for Mutants and Masterminds - another hot new D20 supers game - to arrive from Green Ronin Publishing.

Green Ronin also have a brand new setting book for D20, focussing on gods and religions, called The Book of the Righteous.

These products sum up two of the most prominent trends at this year's show: firstly, the ever-increasing presence of the D20 license, leading to bigger and brighter stand-alone products, and secondly, that super-heroes are cool once again.

HeroClix guysIf you needed proof of the latter, you needed only to watch the terrifying stampede every morning, as dozens of gamers - hundreds on Saturday - ran flat-out to the HeroClix counter, desperate to get their hands on the rarer figures. WizKids' new game makes miniature gaming easy to play, fun to collect, pretty to look at and potentially incredibly painful to the wallet, and thus is a triumph for both the industry and gamers alike. The Mechwarrior figures cleaned out what remained of the fans' cash reserves.

D20 products and booths, meanwhile, were almost as ubiquitous as the HeroClix fans. Pick a genre, and there will be a D20 game coming out for it soon enough. As well as the huge realms of fantasy settings, adventures, creature guides and so forth, there was also a full D20 piratical sourcebook, Broadsides, Sovereign Stone reborn as D20, Afghanistan D20, Fading Suns D20 and an absolute crap-load of stuff for Star Wars D20. I also heard that the originally-pitched GURPS Gloriana will now be Gloriana D20, and will be written by renowned geniuses Ken Hite and Phil Masters. I also heard a rumour that - following a lot of drinking at on Origins party - one of the The Robinsonsmore eccentric game designers in the field has sworn to put out Blacksploitation D20 once D20 modern comes out.

d20 colouring bookBut the weirdest of them all is this one: the Kids Colouring Book of Critters This D20 sourcebook is written and illustrated by Chrystineand Genevieve Robinson, aged 7 and 10 respectively, making them probably the youngest D20 authors ever. This gem of a book is not only a great collection of artwork to colour, the creatures within are also well done, at least as interesting as anything in the Monsters Manual. Scroll-users will have much to fear from the Biggest Fish in the World that Steals Paper, and there are plenty of storyhooks surrounding the mysterious prescient dreaming powers of the Nasinga Cat People.

Besides D20, Decipher's new house system was also drawing attention, and not just because their booth was playing The Two Towers preview constantly. In companion with their launch of the movie-art packed, very sexy new LotR CCG, Decipher were also selling and demoing the new LotR RPG. Decipher's Star Trek RPG came out only a few months ago; with them thus commanding two of the hottest geek properties in existence - both of which have a huge film release coming up later this year - these guys are the company to watch.

Buffy CCGThe other sizzling hot property of the moment is, of course, madamoiselle Buffy, and she too had both a CCG and an RPG launched on the weekend - plus a chance was provided to try out her brand new computer game (which kicks ASS!). All three's production values make excellent use of the source material, and that alone should ensure their success. Of course, they didn't simply leave it at that, with free booster packs in the sample bags, and large-scale demos (with A3 sized cards) running all day both doing their best to stop you forgetting about the Slayer.

John ZisnerSpeaking of TV tie-ins, John Zisner of AEG was very happy to finally have the Farscape RPG ready to sell. With the first half of the book devoted solely to a nigh-statless series guide, they're clearly hoping for cross-over sales. A presumably similar market is the target for the new Simpson's CCG from Wizards of the Coast. Although it was lost in the huge Wizards castle underneath the tide of players playing the various Star Wars CCGs, and amongst the hype for much more anticipated CCGs like Magi nation, LotR, and of course, the new claimant to the Pokémon crown, Yu-Gi-Oh! However, the simple fact that a Simpsons' CCG exists is a clear sign of the times: the gaming industry is big business, and is only to get more and more commercial in the future. And with more and more licensed properties coming into play, and with D20 branding being so widely popular, the RPG industry seems to be going right along with it.

And nowhere is this more obvious than at GenCon. At GenCon (not to mention Origins and GAMA, and others), the RPG business stops being a tiny little cottage industry, selling backyard material to a niche of a nice. At GenCon, it becomes - if only for a weekend - a real industry, with money to spend and hell, even the possibility of money to make. Going to GenCon will change how you view the entire industry. It is exactly like visiting a car or boat or god-awful appliance industry show, only now, people don't hand you a sample you'll never use or a badge you don't want, NOW they give you a sample of the rules, or offer you a badge which is hilarious and cool. For once, the Wheel doesn't give out meat trays or cans of turtle wax, but copies of Axis and Allies or Deities and Demigods, and the jeep with the promotional logo and the babes in the back says Dragonball Z instead of buy our toothpaste. This time it's not try out our revolutionary new vacuum cleaner, but sit down and play this cool new game with us!

And play I did, in more demos than sessions. I played Reiner Knizia's new Lord of the Rings game coming from Fantasy Flight Games, and his insanely clever tile game called Tigris and Euphrates, and saw Klaus Teuber's next few brilliant iterations of the monster that is Catan. (Also available now are t-shirts from the University of Catan, for the board gamer who has everything!) I also got to play Dan Smith's Battle of the Bands with the man himself, and Geeks: the Convention from Torchlight Games.

Magic OnlineThen there were computer games like Everquest (got my ass kicked in the arena competition), the Buffy first-person-shooter, the Godzilla fighting game, the Farscape adventure game, Dark Forces 2 and the much-hyped Magic: The Gathering online. I didn't get onto the Wheel or the hourly Lord of the Rings trivia competitions; the trials seemed a bit too hard for me - but the prizes were worth it for the brave.

My favourite place for demos was the Out of the Box booth, because, true to their game philosophy, their games can all be taught in literally a few seconds, and played in less than a minute. Squint, for example, gives you a minute to make a picture out of the shapes and squiggles shown on the 70-something cards available - a great party game. Blink, however, is only for two people, but it is wildly addictive. Players compete to match colour, shape or number of symbols on their cards, until they run through their deck. First out wins, but the real challenge is doing it quickly. I broke 45 seconds over the weekend, but could never hit the coveted 30 second mark to achieve the Master level.

I was also the Riddle Master (along with many others), won a dice-necklace playing a game called Management Material and got to pick a free insanity from the Hat of Insanity. And White Wolf caused a stir by handing out free Chick tracts - or what we thought were Chick tracts, but were actually just promos for their new game. Demon: The Fallen. Yes, it was all meaningless promotional free crap, but it was cool meaningless promotional free crap!

And when I wasn't getting free stuff, I was just watching the gaming world go by. Just walking around at GenCon is fun, because there's so much to see. I got to meet Warwick Davis (Willow), Ethan Philips (Neelix, on Voyager) and the guy who plays the commander in StarGate - just a few of the celebrities who popped by for a few hours. Out in the hall, fully armoured Klingons were locking people in a cage and making them dance and sing the Hokey Pokey to get out - and all for charity. At the Kenzer stall, each new day provided new butcher paper for passing gamers to graffiti, and new blank strips for them to author, and was always worth a pass for a superb laugh. Whoever wrote the KotD strip about Bob and Dave raiding Bethlehem (and killing the ox and lamb for easy XPs) deserves a contract with Kenzer now.

The funny t-shirts and badges were also a must to check out. I think the hit of the year was the simple black tee which read: "If my character has sex, am I still a virgin?". The runner-up was the line of shirts based on the Very Secret Diaries of the LotR characters (h) - particularly the one featuring a very miffed Aragorn, with the caption: STILL NOT KING. Other highlights I passed included:

  • Dead girls don't say no.
  • I didn't say it was your fault, I just said I was going to blame you
  • Sheep - they give so much, they ask for so little
  • Power Corrupts. Absolute Power is kinda nice
  • I failed my saving throw and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.
  • Warning: Capricious DM ahead
  • And the simple: Stop reading my T-shirt


Click here for more pictures

Aliens MinisDown in the card gaming room, I watched people playing Star Wars and Aliens on huge modelled sets; there was no need to play, just watching them was as cool as the movies. Or you could take it to the next level and just watch the people in the full Star Wars costumes - or the wizards, or the elves, or knights, or wenches, or dragons, or the whole host of Changelings for the massive WW LARP which ran over three nights...

Yes, it's the people - whether they're wearing plate armour or just a black T-shirt - that make the best spectacle at GenCon. They're the ones that let you know that geekiness is in the house and running wild and free. And, of course, it's the people that make it so that gamers are everywhere, and that games are being played everywhere. It's the people that run the cool booths and the superb games, and they exist solely for people to come and play them. But even if you took away all the booths and all the games and all the cool free stuff and all the'd have an Australian convention.

Actually, you wouldn't, because you'd still have some twenty thousand gamers in one place, numbers which most other countries can't even dream about. Just putting that many gamers together makes for an amazing experience. Add the money and the companies and the games to buy and the games to play and the films and the seminars and the booths and the demos and the celebrities and the competitions and the prizes and the free stuff and the parties and the toys and the jokes and the rock and roll and the endless geeking out, and it's unbelievably cool. GenCon something every gamer should go to, at least once, because it really is like nothing else on earth.

Except maybe Origins.

Not to mention next year's GenCon, too.

Soo....can we pre-register yet?

Steve Darlington, former editor par excellence of this magazine, is spending a year touring the world on his yacht and spreading the word for roleplaying. He was last seen disappearing into a snowstorm in Norway. If found, please feed on Tim-Tams and return to his Mum.

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