The booths have been dismantled, the games put away, the green goblin face paint washed off, and the last of the trolls, pirates and grognards have been swept from the halls of the Indiana Convention Center.
While of course the main reason gamers flock to Gen Con is to demo new product releases – and for sure, there were oodles of new merch on the convention floor, from Fantasy Flight Games’s Star Wars card miniature games to Wizards of the Coast D&D Neverwinter campaign setting – what I noticed, above all, was the spirit of gaming.
There’s an ad in the Indianapolis Airpoirt about “gaming,” but that ad means casino gambling: poker, blackjack, slots. What I mean, and what Gen Con ultimately aims to promote, is true gaming. Play that’s not about beating the system or bilking other players of their riches, but sharing the experience of adventure and fun.
Reflecting back on my four days at Gen Con Indy, here are some final words about the power of table-top and role-playing games.
I was lucky to talk to some industry insiders and legends. I reminisced with Tim Kask (Gary Gygax’s first employee and former Dragon magazine editor) and Harold Johnson (the Dragonlance line was one of his brainchilds) about the old days at TSR, Inc. I spoke to longtime freelancer and now Wizards game designer Mike Mearls about how RPGs can save kids – like me, like him – who live through troubled or lonely times. I chatted with Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood (himself a veteran of Gen Cons past) who extolled the virtues of fantasy role-playing and how RPGs connect us to our lost story telling heritage.
All weekend long, I wandered the vendor floor, the hallways and game rooms, but I kept returning to the Gen Con auction. Here, folks unload old games of all types, from D&D products to an old copy of Tunnels and Trolls to a forgotten board game like Dark Tower or Pac-Man. On Friday night, the best of the best collector items were bid on and bought. I watched Kask and fellow TSR veteran game designer Frank Mentzer (founder of the Role-Playing Games Association), both serving as auctioneers, scrutinize an old D&D Basic set, trying to ascertain whether it was a first or third printing and whether the shrink wrap and Toys “R” Us sticker were authentic. I was fascinated by the love and passion these games attract, as well as the desire to get the details right. And the humor: After the winning bid on that Basic set, the auctioneers tore open the shrink wrap to see what was inside. (Sorry, winner, it was nothing special.) The desire to know the “guts” trumped any persnickety OCDism to keep the package intact for posterity’s sake.
Thankfully, more than just old timers are keeping the old RPGs alive. Publishing collectives like The Old School Renaissance Group and voices like the Blog of Holding are intent on honoring the groundbreaking heritage of D&D. A downloadable gaming product called Old School Hack is doing its best to introduce a streamlined, D&D-like RPG experience to a new generation of players. “A hack of a hack of the original Red Box version of a certain popular hack-and-slash fantasy game,” is what the folks say about their wee little product. Old School Hack also won the best free product “gold” award at Gen Con’s ENnies, the game industry’s version of the Oscars/Emmys. I applaud Kirin Robinson, the man behind OSH, who humbly notes, “I’m certainly not any sort of professional game designer, just another hobbyist looking to put together a fun game.” Here are all ENnie winners.
[Side note: In a funny, tongue-in-cheeky move, at the ENnie awards ceremony, every time Wizards of the Coast won a silver or gold, the “Imperial Death March” theme from the Empire Strikes Back would sound. Hanging out at their spectacular, ruined castle booth a lot this weekend, I know Wizards has a sense of humor.]
Seriously, evil empire jokes and fancy booth bling aside, Gen Con also reminded me of about the enthusiasm of the hundreds of indie gamer designers who exhibit their dreams here. Their only hope? To get a few dozens players excited about their new adventure. Tiny companies, like Moosetache Games, who debuted their new card game Hike, a family card game that encourages cognitive learning and teaches children about nature, took the time to teach anyone who wanted to learn. After all, the best way to try a new game is to play it. And no better way than from the folks who make it.
I also hung out with the folks behind an exciting new project, Dungeons & Dragons: A Documentary, who (like me) aim to tell the whole story of how a simple yet innovative, fantasy role-playing game changed the course of millions of lives, and the history of our culture. And how D&D is still inspiring people to be creative writers, thinkers, and problem-solvers .
And I spoke to Gail Gygax, wife of the late Gary Gygax, and their son Luke Gygax, who are intent on making sure that the legacy of Gary and his contributions to the game are remembered. They both gave a moving tribute to Gary at the ENnie awards. And their Gygax Memorial Fund is still soliciting donations. You can even record your own video testimonial for the website.
Which brings me back to my over-aching feeling upon departing Gen Con: that table-top, roleplaying gaming is really about people. Gaming brings folks together around a table to banter and bargain and be boisterous. To share a playful experience outside of work, responsibilities, outside of the boxes we have drawn around ourselves. Adults need as much free, unstructured down time as kids. Let’s not forget that. We need to goof off, too.
And as cool as richly-imagined digital worlds can be, in game playing, it’s the quality and passion of the company around the living room table that count, not the impressive gadgets and graphics. This is a lesson we especially should teach kids, who need to understand that not all games need involve a video monitor and a digital graphics. The power of the raw imagination needs to be preserved.
Hope to see you at next year’s Gen Con (or any of the hundreds of smaller game cons that have sprung up, including Gary Con IV in March, 2012, where you can game with many gaming legends).