GenCon. Sixty thousand attendees. Several thousand unique role playing games, table top board games and PC and console computer games. Several hundred vendors & dealers from all over the world running free demos of their games and selling more bloody games than you can shake a stick at. GenCon is the largest tabletop game convention in the world and this year marks its fiftieth anniversary.
But wasn’t always the behemoth game convention it is today. In fact, Gen Con’s origin story is quite humble. And it starts with the father of Dungeons and Dragons himself, Gary Gygax.
Gen Con 0 - 1967 - Location: The home of Gary Gygax, Lake Geneva, WI. Approx. Attendance: 12
Gary Gygax eventually becomes the co-creator of the well known role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. But a few years before he helped write D&D, he was known in the small but fierce miniature tactical war gaming scene. I don’t want to get bogged down detailing too much Gygax history, instead I want to focus more on the history of GenCon. But they do intertwine. Here is an excellent piece detailing Gygax’s life and the history of D&D -- Wired’s, Dungeon Master: The Life and Legacy of Gary Gygax.
To my understanding there are no known pictures of the first Gen Con, named after Lake Geneva, where Gygax lived. Gygax invited some friends over to his pad and they played miniature tactical war-games. For those unfamiliar with the idea -- a game involving two six sided dice and a whole bunch of miniature soldiers. Players took turns moving the miniatures closer to the opposing player and then using dice rolls to determine if a soldier “hit” or “missed” with its attack. This process repeats until one side has no soldiers left.
The next year Gygax decided to shell out fifty bucks and rent a room in his hometown’s Horticultural Hall, charging folks $1 to attend. The first official Gen con was born. Gygax made just enough money from attendance to pay himself back.
(GenCon 1, 1968)
From then on GenCon increased in attendance almost every year. Through word of mouth people came from all over WI and then came from near by states, to game. For almost the entire first decade of GenCon it was at the Horticultural Hall in Lake Geneva, but once or twice was held elsewhere.
It wasn’t until Gygax and Dave Arneson co create Dungeons & Dragons, that the convention really took off. D&D wasn’t a typical miniature tactical war game. It had a lot of similar aspects - you rolled dice to determine some specific outcomes and there was a lot of strategy involved in the combat but most importantly you got to play a character. You could create and elf, or a dwarf or you could become a warrior or a rogue. And the more times you played that character, the tougher that character became! This idea of "a character" and advancement of your character becomes the core of all role playing games to come.
Dungeons and Dragons was a smash hit and Gygax formed Tactical Studies Rules (TSR, inc) to publish D&D, modules, supplemental material and even a magazine about D&D called, "The Dragon" -- later changed to "Dragon." D&D sold out again and again and again. And more people kept coming to Gary Gygax’s GenCon to play D&D. GenCon quickly outgrew the Horticultural Hall and for several years was run at the University of Wisconsin, Parkside. The attendance of the convention had grown to two, sometimes three thousand people. And not just to play D&D, there were other role playing games (RPG) that appeared -- Boot Hill (a western RPG co-created by Gygax), Champions (super hero RPG), Gamma World (post apocalyptic RPG), Star Frontiers (Space opera RPG), Top Secret (spy thriller RPG) and many others. (And, yes, I've played them all!).
But D&D was always the largest, the most well know and, sadly, the most targeted. Religious organizations all over the country began speaking out against D&D claiming it was the work of the devil and that it taught children how to cast magic spells and consort with demons and / or would possess your child. Silliness, all of it.
Dave Arneson, co-creator of D&D had a charming response to the controversy: “Invite parents to play. They’re going to be so bored. They will understand that anything this nerdy can’t possible lead to devil possession.”
Dave Arneson for the win.
But the bad publicity only got more kids interested and in the mid eighties D&D was so popular that the number of folks attending the premiere D&D convention in the country, GenCon, doubled.
The University of Wisconsin, Parkside was unable to house so many attendees. A new venue had to be found. Stat!
Gen Con 18 - 1985 - Location: MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena), Milwaukee, WI. Approx. Attendance: 5000
Throughout its early years GenCon expanded into other states - GenCon South (FL), GenCon East (NJ), GenCon West (CA) and even to other continents but none of them lasted more than a few years. GenCon Midwest kept growing.
Enter MECCA. An actual convention center. For an actual game convention that started, figuratively speaking, in Gary Gygax’s basement. With room to expand attendance rapidly doubled from five to ten thousand.
By 1992, GenCon’s twenty fifth birthday, I had finally heard about it. I had been gaming since kindergarten. First D&D, then the superhero role playing game, Champions and then recently had been turned onto the horror themed role playing game, Call of Cthulhu based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft.
By 1993 I was attending GenCon. From that point on, year after year my friends and I would make the drive and we would hang out in beer scented Milwaukee for a week of games. And it was glorious. Attendance at the con was now fifteen to twenty thousand strong. Then, in 1997 a company called, Wizard’s of the Coast bought GenCon from TSR.
Gary Gygax was old and ill and had not been in charge of TSR for a long time. So he really had nothing more to do with the convention he created.
Wizard’s of the Coast was the company that created the extremely popular customizable card game, Magic: The Gathering. In 1999, Hasbro bought Wizard’s of the Coast. So now the multinational toy and board game company that created the iconic Monopoly board game owned GenCon. BUT THEN -- in 2002, Peter Adkison, former CEO of Wizard’s of the Coast, buys GenCon from Hasbro. So the convention is back in the hands of a gamer. A very, very rich gamer.
The convention continued to grow and by 2002 it was clear that Milwaukee no longer had the hotel capacity to house the twenty five to thirty thousand attendees.
It was time for GenCon to move. Again.
Gen Con 36 - 2003 - Location: Indiana Convention Center, Indianapolis, IN. Approx. Attendance: 25000.
GenCon moved to Indianapolis. The very same home of the Indy 500, which boasts one hundred thousand attendees so of course the city can absorb GenCon’s meager thirty thousand gamers. And then GenCon expanded. It’s not only at the Indy Convention Center, it’s also at all the surrounding hotels and halls and expo centers and every single scrap of open building space within a several block radius of the ICC.
GenCon Indy quickly went from thirty thousand attendees to forty and now sixty. Sixty thousand gamers descend on Indy for one week in August to hang out with other gamers and play games. Sixty thousand people have put hundreds of billions of dollars into the Indy economy.
And it’s all because Gary Gygax started GenCon 0 in 1968. In his basement.
Gen Con 50 - 2017 - Location: Indiana Convention Center, Indianapolis, IN. Estimated Attendance: 65000.
Which brings me to the end. I am packing and will be off to GenCon soon. I have games to play. I have friends to see. Friends from other states that I only get to visit with once a year, at GenCon. In fact it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of friends I have is because Gary Gygax created D&D.
Most of the long term friends I have I met at gaming halls, or game conventions, or game days in the basement of a VFW, or in the gaming section at a bookstore or at a game store. Perhaps role playing games would have evolved, without Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. Perhaps they would have evolved another way from other people.
It’s very likely. But, it doesn’t matter because it did evolve from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and Dungeons and Dragons. And it's because of those three names that I’m a gamer. And that’s why I’m going to GenCon.
Gary Gygax died in 2008, Mr. Arneson in 2009, both from complications of cancer. I never met either one. But their legacy lives on. D&D is now in its fifth edition. It's published in dozens of languages all over the world. And it will be heavily featured this year at GenCon 50.
And I will be there, at GenCon -- where it will be, just me -- and sixty five thousand of my closest friends.
Mr. Gygax, Mr. Arneson, rest in peace.
And thank you for the imagination. And the stories. And the memories.