It all started at Gary Gygax's house in August of 1967. I'm not talking about the creation of Dungeons & Dragons, though that would happen soon enough. I'm talking about the first Gen Con back before it had a name, when it was merely a small gathering of fans inspired by a one-day gaming convention in Malvern, Pennsylvania that Gary read about in a magazine. Inspired by the Malvern event, Gygax invited 12 to 20 (the numbers are shrouded in the haze of his remembrances) to come to his house for a day of gaming. The majority of the people who attended knew Gary through that '60s equivalent of online gaming known as "postal play." According to Robin Laws' excellent resource 40 Years of Gen Con, Gygax described the event as, "crowded. We had three card tables crammed onto a small front porch. Then there was some miniatures gaming down in the basement. It was a weekend. My former wife would definitely have killed me if [it] went more than a weekend."
The next year was the first official Gen Con, which was held at Horticultural Hall. There were approximately 60 people in attendance at that event, including a high school student named Mike Carr who had convinced his family to spend their vacation sightseeing in the area. Carr attended that first Gen Con and shared his original board game Fight in the Skies. The game was eventually published by TSR as Dawn Patrol and it has been played at every Gen Con since 1968.
From those very humble beginnings Gen Con has become the premiere table top gaming event and one of the largest pop culture events in North America. Last year Gen Con had over 41,000 attendees. There is a lot of fun to be had at Gen Con, but it can be a bit overwhelming so I'm here to give you a few tips that will help you maximize your fun and minimize your stress.
Image Source Spirit of the Blank
Follow my advice and you'll avoid being trapped in the Invasion of the Game Snatchers pictured above.
1) Play Some Games You Haven't Played Before
Gen Con is one of the largest gaming conventions in the world. If you can't find a game to play that is worth playing and that you have yet to play, then you aren't looking very hard. I own quite a few games and I've played - though not rated on BGG - most of the games I own. I still find little gems to play at Gen Con every year. Sometimes the gems are new, but sometimes the games are classics that I had never tried before.
There are a lot of new games and supplements coming out this year, but take some time to play a classic game. I'll come back to this in a moment. Have you ever played the Lost Worlds game books? Most grognards have, but if you're new to the hobby they are a great way to pass the time. Gen Con always has a tournament or two going on somewhere. Some of these tournaments are organized and some are quite informal. If you've already played the Lost Worlds books, just keep looking. Maybe you can find someone running a session of Pathfinder Ponies in a room filled with Bronies.
2) The Will Call Window is Your Friend
Do not. I repeat. Do not wait in line on any of the mornings of the convention to pick up your registration badge or tickets for events. The Will Call window is open all night. Yes, Indianapolis at night is a tad bit like an episode of The Walking Dead. It's eerily quiet, and it feels like a zombie could jump around the corner to eat you at any minute. Don't worry, though, because it isn't a zombie, it's a more than slightly drunk game designer staggering back to his or her hotel room after a night of "business meetings." If your visit to the will-call window looks more like the Invasion of the Game Snatchers above and less like the creepy and still Night of the Comet set below, then you are doing it wrong.
They instituted this policy last year and it was a big hit. Trust me. Take advantage of this perk. Gen Con may not be San Diego Comic Con when it comes to attendance, but the annual mayhem in San Diego could learn a thing or two from Gen Con. Having attendees register for events instead of waiting in the baking sun for some "kind soul" to leave Hall H is one of the things Gen Con does right, and yes, the tickets are often free.
3) Buy a Copy of Matt Forbeck's Dangerous Games Omnibus
I know that you think I am kidding, but I'm not. If you want to read a trilogy of novels that are essentially an insider's guide to Gen Con, then you absolutely must read these stories. Dangerous Games is about a murder that takes place at Gen Con and in presenting the story, Matt Forbeck introduces you to the events and gaming celebrities you may meet at the convention. Do you want a glimpse at what hanging out with Ken Hite at the Diana Jones Awards is like? That's in the first chapter. There is so much information packed into the omnibus that I have come to think of it as a vital visitor's guide in addition to it being a rip-roaring tale.
The reason the book is so useful is that Matt Forbeck is one of the hardest-working designers in the industry. He has worked everywhere and with almost everyone. He worked for Games Workshop in the UK for a while which is where he made many long lasting friendships and connections with British publishers; he has worked for TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Pinnacle Entertainment group. In fact, those are only scratching the surface. You know the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?" In the gaming world, there's the game "Three Degrees of Matt Forbeck." If you've designed a game, you're Matt Forbeck number is likely two. Name a game and we'll see how few connections it takes.
4) Play a Game With a Grognard
A few years back, I made a big mistake. I had the opportunity to meet Gary Gygax and I didn't take it. I've regretted it ever since. Role playing gamers are lucky. Unlike a lot of hobbies and obsessions, the creators of our passion are still alive. No matter how hard you try, you can't go to a tavern to ask Shakespeare what his inspiration for The Tempest was. You can play a game of Tunnels & Trolls with Ken St. Andre or a game of Dawn Patrol with Mike Carr, though, and it's not that hard. Last year at Gen Con, I walked into the open gaming room where all the neophyte game designers are trying to solicit play testers. In the middle of this chaos was a sea of calm around a large table where all the participants seemed to be having a great time. I wandered over, only to find out that it was Mike Carr running Dawn Patrol.
I want you to think about that for a second. There is only one event that has been played at every Gen Con since the first one at Horticultural Hall and that is a Dawn Patrol tournament. It's a rare privilege. It's also one that isn't sufficiently taken advantage of by the attendees. Hordes of gamers will walk by this opportunity to learn about our hobby from someone who was there in order to walk over to a table on a scavenger hunt in the hopes of getting a Pathfinder button. And to not take the opportunity to play Tunnels & Trolls - the second role-playing game ever published - with its designer is a crime against the hobby. Whether you are a fan of the game's mechanics or not, playing the game with Ken is a joy. It might even convince you to purchase a copy of the new edition they have coming out later this year.