It was 1989 and I was looking for distractions. I had just finished my second year at NYU and I was in a bit of a haze. The first great love affair of my life had ended badly and I was messed up about it. I decided I need to do something different and it had to be fun. It so happened that my roommate in Hayden Hall was from Milwaukee and earlier in the year a couple of his friends stayed in our tiny dorm room for a week. Before they left, they told me I could crash with them if I ever came to Milwaukee. I’m sure they thought they’d never see me because what were the odds of a New Yorker vacationing in Wisconsin? I thought to myself, “Milwaukee, isn’t that where GenCon is?”
GenCon, for you non-gamers out there, is the biggest game convention in America. Gary Gygax (of Dungeons & Dragons fame) started it in Lake Geneva, WI in 1968 with 100 attendees. It grew year to year and changed locations many times. In 1985 the show moved to Milwaukee and remained there until 2003. All throughout my teenage years I had seen endless ads for GenCon in various D&D; publications. Dragon Magazine used to do an insert that listed all the events. Even though I couldn’t go, I’d read over all the events and marvel at all the cool stuff that seemed to go on there. I always wanted to go but it was beyond my means.
If I had a place to stay though, that would reduce the cost of going enormously. So I called the guys in Milwaukee, confirmed that I could indeed stay with them, and booked a flight for August. The convention was held at the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena. That’s right; I was making a pilgrimage to MECCA.
So I went out there for a week. I crashed on a couch, took the bus down to MECCA each day, and ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. I didn’t know anyone at the convention. The guys I was staying with were, in fact, gamers big into Call of Cthulhu but they never went to GenCon despite it being in their home town. So I just explored the con on my own and it was by far the biggest one I had ever been to. I played a ton of RPGs and minis games over four days. I experienced the awesome auction (this was pre-Ebay remember). I went to seminars. I drooled over things I couldn’t afford in the dealers’ hall. Every company I had ever heard of and many that I hadn’t were there. This was before you could order whatever you wanted online, so just being able to find some of these games was a treat, never mind meeting folks from the companies that produced them. The whole experience was awesome and when I got back to NYC I told all my friends about it.
Then a funny thing happened. After hearing my tales of GenCon, they wanted to go in 1990. So the next year I found myself back again. It soon became a tradition with my gaming friends in New York. We eventually started renting a van and turning it into a massively fun road trip. After awhile going to GenCon each year was no longer a question. It was just something I assumed I’d be doing one way or another. Now all of a sudden it’s 2009 and I’m about to go to my 20th GenCon in a row. I can count on one hand the number of things I’ve done every year for twenty years.
Looking back on it I can see that my impulsive decision to go to GenCon in 1989 had a major effect on my life. I had wanted to try my hand at game design for years, but it was my trips to GenCon that made it happen. It was there I met people from various companies and hustled for freelance work. There I started my career as a publisher. There I met my future wife face to face for the first time. There Green Ronin won the Best Publisher ENnie Award three years in a row.
Tuesday night I’m heading out again. These days the show is in Indianapolis and it attracts more than 25,000 people each year. In many ways it’ll be a GenCon like any other. I’ll be at the Green Ronin booth with my friends and colleagues selling our wares. There will be business meetings, late night drinking sessions, and as much gaming as I can squeeze in. I’ll attend the ENnie Awards Friday night and if I’m lucky take home one or two. I’ll see many old friends and not have nearly enough time to spend with them. I’ll have spent all year thinking about GenCon and then the show will go by in a flash.
It may seem the same, but this one is going to be different. I’ll be celebrating 20 years of great memories, fun times, and enduring friendships. There won’t be a party and there won’t be cake, but it’ll be special nonetheless. Thanks for everything, GenCon.