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For the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of attending Gen Con in Indianapolis. It is quite possibly the largest concentration of role-playing nerds in one space for one hot weekend in August. In making preparations for this year’s venture to the Midwest, I stopped to reflect on just what makes gaming conventions so special. Having had the experience of more videogame-centric events like PAX, GDC and E3 under my belt, I’m excited to go back to my roots, as it were, and roll some dice at America’s true gaming convention.

Legend has it that Gary Gygax started Gen Con in his basement in 1967. Gygax was an insurance actuary (that explains the tables) living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the first gathering was an informal congregation of about 20 wargaming grognards. Because of the location and its focus on wargames, this meeting was called the Geneva Convention. The next year, Gygax rented the Horticultural Hall in town for $50 and Gen Con was held there every year until 1976. After gradually moving to bigger and better facilities, spawning many imitators, and changing many hands, Gen Con has been held in Indianapolis since 2003 and run by the founder of Wizards of the Coast, Peter Adkison.

The first Gen Con that I attended was also the first without Gary Gygax. Gygax’s passing into the Happy Hunting Grounds was a pall that hung over the event, but it was fascinating to see a community of dorks and nerds pay homage to the man who made their lifestyles possible. These huddled masses, these LeeLoo and Star Wars cosplayers, these thick-breasted, bodiced women and long-bearded men, all paid their respects with a moment of silence at the start of festivities on Thursday morning. But the silence was unnecessary, for their mere existence was all in honor of Gygax.

I went to Gen Con in 2008 to promote a book called Forgotten Heroes: Fang, Fist and Song for Goodman Games. It was the first third party supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and it featured rules for the Bard, Barbarian, Monk and Druid, classes which were notably absent from Wizard’s first Player’s Handbook for the edition. In order to show off the classes, the writing team thought it might be a good idea to run an adventure all weekend that let Gen Con attendees try out our powers and feats with custom-made characters. We set a rigorous schedule of 2 hour sessions, essentially from 9am Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon. The responsibility for GMing these gaming sessions were supposed to be split evenly amongst the 4 writers, but one couldn’t run any due to other activities and the other needed to babysit Ed Greenwood. So essentially, my friend and colleague, Tavis Allison, and I traded running games 14 hours a day for four days straight.

Successfully running a good convention game is different from any kind of ongoing gaming session or group, even if your group plays only one shots. At a convention, especially one of the size and popularity as Gen Con, you are likely to never meet someone who plays in your game ever again. There is no continuity from one session to the next; everything that you imagine around the table in that wonky hotel ballroom only exists in the minds of you and your fellow players. The adventure needs to be easy to digest, but also memorable enough for players to walk away feeling like they had participated in something special.

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Luckily, Tavis had had experience crafting such an adventure for other gaming conventions and he lent his expertise in showcasing the new social mechanics in 4E in addition to letting players choose from an array of interesting characters. Because we only had two hours, the adventure had to be designed to be played quickly. We loved the idea of a rival party of adventurers, so those were the enemies (who, incidentally, were also created using the classes in Forgotten Heroes, so we had double the chance of making players interested in our product). We also gave players incentives; there was a game to “win.” We hid 10 treasures in the small dungeon, and the group which collected all of them before the 2 hours were up would be recognized at the Goodman Games booth on Sunday and would have their names published on the website. Gamers love nothing more than a little notoriety.

The result of this design, however, meant that gaming groups were often motivated to play as fast and as furious as possible and each session ended in a frenzy of dice-rolling that got my heart racing every time. I also made a point of encouraging roleplay; there was often no combat until an hour or more had elapsed. The characters had to convince an Awakened squirrel not to raise the alarm, and it was challenging (and terribly fun) to roleplay a simple animal motivated by nuts and berries.

GMing all of those sessions was terribly exhausting. I often had 2 or 3 sessions scheduled in a row where my only break was a hastily inhaled cigarette before turning on the imagination for a new group of faces. After the event, I had a slipped disk in my back which I swear I got by rolling dice repeatedly. Running that many games gave me little time to walk the show floor, or to check out any of the other events at Gen Con. My mind was fried from so much imagining, that I could do little more than stumble the streets of Indianapolis and collapse into my hotel bed, drained.

I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Even though there are hundreds of games occurring in the square mile around the Indiana Convention Center during Gen Con, there’s no promise that they will all be amazing. Not all GMs are created equal, unfortunately, and the sheer number of them at Gen Con means that not every game can or will be fun. In fact, the only way to make sure that you have a great time is to run your own gaming session. It’s not a bad idea to sample the goods, so to speak, of other GMs at a convention, but nothing beats controlling your own fun by crafting a simple but evocative adventure that transports the players to an imaginary world in two hour chunks.

More gamers than I could count came up to me after the session to say that playing with me was the most fun that they had had at the whole convention. Like a performer bowing to a standing ovation, or a comedian relishing the guffaws of his audience, hearing such praise is what makes convention gaming so special. It raises roleplaying games to a performance art; you are playing for an audience whose only experience with you is the two hours of the game. It can be exhilarating.

For Gen Con 2010, I don’t have any games planned. I’m approaching the experience with a blank slate. I’ll meet some friends from the City and play with them, and I might dabble in playing some other gaming systems which have caught my eye.

But I wonder if I’ll miss running the show. Will the experience be different, and by that I mean less fun, if I’m merely a consumer instead of the “talent”? Will I miss performing for a group of dorks that I’ll never see again?

Greg Tito has begun dreaming up an adventure to run at Gen Con 2010.

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