This is gaming’s Super Bowl, and at 10:00 Thursday morning, it’s just getting started. The flood of people entering the Indiana Convention Center are no surprise - this is the largest gaming convention in the world - but the people themselves might be. If you’re expecting overweight men with acne and underdressed girls in anime costumes, you’re a bit off base. In fact, if you’re downtown this weekend, you’ll probably see hundreds of Gen Con attendees without even knowing it. I’m one of them. So if you’ve ever wanted to know what goes on behind the doors at Indianapolis’ second largest convention, read on, but beware: here there be dragons.
Actually, the Gen Con atmosphere is very welcoming. I brush past giddy geeks and grinning gamers to pick up my convention program - the “player’s guide” for Gen Con attendees. Games, stores, seminars, workshops, and LARP events (see glossary) line 196 pages in eight-point font, offering everything from the opportunity to play an oversized version of “The Settlers of Catan” to a class teaching you to make your own chainmail dice bags. But my eyes are drawn to one event in particular- I’ve got a quest, and it’s on the other side of the building.
I rush past the Klingon troubadours singing The Beatles’ classic “ghaH muSHa'taH SoH” (known to us Earthlings as “She Loves You”) and find the Dungeons and Dragons (“D&D”) Game Developer Panel. They announced a new version of D&D a few months ago, and my quest for this weekend is to learn as much as I can about it - and maybe even playtest it.
It shouldn’t be tough. The game’s owner, Wizards of the Coast, has been a heavy sponsor of the convention for decades, filling up the two largest blocks on the Gen Con map with D&D and their other major game franchise, Magic: The Gathering. At the developer panel and the D&D keynote that night, hundreds gather to hear about the new version. The last release got mixed reviews; while still popular, the general consensus was that it’s not as good as it used to be. Wizards of the Coast seems to have noticed, and are taking our concerns into account. Applause fills the auditorium when Mike Mearls, Senior Manager of D&D, assures us that “with the next version of D&D, it’s all about putting together a simple set of core rules so that we can focus on what made us fall in love with the game in the first place: the people at the table and the stories they create together.” Shouts of joy ring out when author Ed Greenwood, looking not unlike a wizard himself, reveals that the first setting for the new version will be the beloved Forgotten Realms, a world he began creating when he was six years old and first released for D&D over 25 years ago. “The most important stories of all in D&D are the ones you create around the gaming table,” he says, “so we’ve been fixing up the Realms for you to tell more stories.”
The buzz from the panel and keynote spill out into the rest of the convention. “I’m very intrigued by the art and the history,” one fan tells me. He abandoned the D&D game for Pathfinder four years ago, but the upcoming version might win him back. “If they’re putting this much effort into the new release, I’ll be excited to try it out.”
I try to get into the playtest, but they’re full up tonight. No tickets available for the rest of the convention, either, so my best bet is to be taken in as a replacement for someone who bought a ticket and never showed up. No worries - there are three more days. Thursday night’s torrential rain and strong winds have intensified gamers’ desire to stay inside and play, and as I leave at 9:00, though the rain has let up, there’s not a single sign that they will stop playing.
Friday morning, after another D&D panel to start the day and being turned away from the playtest again, I make my way to the Exhibit Hall. It’s a huge bazaar packed wall-to-wall with game developers, authors, artists, and clothiers, encouraging you to try everything and buy something. Thousands of people snake through twenty-two rows of booths picking through t-shirts, leather armor, cards, steampunk guns, and millions of dice (see glossary). Gamers and gawkers press in close, and at the best of times, a fellow shopper is still haggling less than an arm’s length away. Throngs gather around booths hawking curiosities and good deals. One booth promises wooden mustaches and monocles - “Geek chic,” the sign assures us. Elsewhere, booth workers wear signs as hats - “All items $5,” answering what is probably the most common question in this room. In the middle of the fray, a booth is selling a mash-up of Star Trek with the famous board game “The Settlers of Catan.” They’re even advertising that Nichelle Nichols, Uhura from the original Star Trek TV show, will be on hand to sign copies. A discerning gamer knows when to quit, though, and after browsing at a booth of Doctor Who memorabilia, I step outside to catch my breath and grab some lunch.
This afternoon, I’ve decided, will be all about playing these games, but I wait around the D&D playtest in vain. “Sorry, no generics today,” Mark tells me, referring to the vouchers for people who didn’t buy tickets before the event sold out. Mark is in charge of the conference room where they playtest is held, and he’s been run ragged apologizing to people who can’t get in. I enroll myself and a friend in a Magic: The Gathering booster draft instead (see glossary).
I draft a solid Exalted deck, sweeping a young man named Will and his Elf deck in the first round before being narrowly edged out in the second by a Canadian named Martin and his creature-kill deck. When I stand up, I’m surprised to see that it’s been two hours since the draft started. There’s just enough time for a quick playtest, so some friends and I go back into the exhibit hall and try out the much-advertised Level 7: Escape board game. We make it down a few asylum hallways, a step ahead of the aliens and agents guarding our cells, but before we can reach the elevator to the surface, the Exhibit Hall closes and we join the exodus.
On Saturday morning, I wander the convention with some friends, and I’m struck by how many gamers are teaching newbies how to play their game. At Gen Con, gaming isn’t restricted by conference rooms or start times. Spontaneous sessions break out on the floors, in the hallways, at food court tables, even on the elevator. Last year, I played an indie game made by a Hawaiian native called “Surf Hawaii” on the floor of one of the concourses, avoiding sharks, rocks, and tourist traps in my goal to surf all eight islands of Hawaii. This year, “Zombie High” is on the floor in several places. We find a clear place to sit on a carpeted breezeway overlooking the food court, and I teach one of my friends to play his newly-purchased Magic: The Gathering deck. Several people around us are doing the same. Most people are happy to teach you their preferred game here; people are happy to get others involved in things they like.
A geek’s kindness isn’t limited to games, though. Gamers understand that we’re a small part of a bigger world, since the fictional worlds in which they’re immersed highlight the interconnectedness of our own, and many geeks have a genuine desire to give back. Beneath our sudden game classroom is one of several ways for geeks to do that, an area stacked ten feet tall with large structures built entirely from gaming cards. Known as Cardhalla, this is Gen Con’s most visible philanthropic effort: volunteers build a city using donated cards, then bid to see who will be the first to try and destroy it. Late on Saturday night, would-be world enders hurl pocket change at the city to knock it down. The money is collected from the carnage and donated. This year, the fourteenth year of Cardhalla, STARS Youth Foundation received over $2,500 from the event.
After admiring Cardhalla, we see another spectacle of charity - the Balloon Dragon, a 13-foot-tall creature built entirely from balloons by artist Tim Thurmond. “I’ve been working on it since 7:30 yesterday,” he says, connecting the dragon’s tail to his body with a twist. Aside from a few hours’ sleep and a quick lunch break, he’s been working on it nearly nonstop. “If I stop, I can’t get it out of my head. It’s better to just go ahead and finish it.” The dragon - well, the rights to destroy it - will be auctioned off to benefit charity, too. “You can’t take it home without a U-Haul,” Tim says. “When it’s done, it’ll be about thirteen feet tall and twenty feet wide.” He’s not exaggerating. Hours later, after wandering the exhibit hall and waiting in vain for the D&D playtest again, we come back to watch him finally affix the massive dragon’s right wing - the crowning achievement to this gigantic piece. “It’s done!” he cries in relief, eliciting cheers from the onlookers.
The crowd around Thurmond disperses, and we make our way across the street to one of the Gen Con overflow areas. Too big to be contained by the Indiana Convention Center, Gen Con has expanded to the hotels across Maryland Street. In the Westin, a group of Anime fans are lined up at tables, selling commissioned artwork and talking to other fans of the Japanese animation style. In one ballroom, geeky indie films with titles like “Reverse Parthenogenesis” and “Geners” are playing. In another, music groups “Pillage and Plunder” and “Professor Shyguy” perform a geek-related subgenre of rock music called “nerdcore.” We play a quick game of Magic: The Gathering while we listen to the show, then head toward the exit. The most dedicated gamers we see as we leave have forsaken sleep for more gaming last night - something they’ll probably do tonight, too.
By the time Sunday dawns, many gamers are the walking dead. Shambling to their taxis and shuttles as sleep-deprived zombies, they leave Indianapolis reluctantly, clutching their purchases. I sneak in to one last D&D panel - it’s become an addiction at this point - and try valiantly once more to complete my quest to playtest the new edition of D&D. “I’m sorry,” Mark says when I enter the room. “We’re out of space for today.” He’s a nice guy, and he hands me a few dice in apology as I leave. Like the rest of Gen Con, the playtest is wrapping up. Many places that once held spectacles of gaming and geekdom stand empty now, a testament to opportunities that I missed. The D&D playtest is just one of them. I’ve failed in my quest, but just like the 30,000 other conventioneers leaving around me, I know one thing for sure - there’s always 2013.
Gen Con Glossary
booster draft: n. Creating a deck from a random sample of game cards and playing those decks in a tournament.
cosplay: v. To dress up in costume and play at being that character, usually in public.
dice: n (plural of "die"). In this case, not simply referring to Yahtzee-style dice with six faces, but also to four-, ten-, twenty-, and even 100-sided dice used for generating random numbers in various games.
LARP: n. An initialism of "Live Action Role Play." In this form of RPG, players forego description and character sheets in favor of actually acting out the action.
newbie: n. A greatly valued gamer: someone new to a particular gaming experience, who wants to learn. True geeks love newbies.
steampunk: adj. Modern and futuristic lifestyles and technology, reimagined from a Victorian point of view, in which everything is powered by that miracle power source, steam.