In 1981 Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next game session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” But Mike and I lacked the athletic prowess of the sportos and proved too mild for the freaks, so we kept gaming.
The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”
I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.
In my high school circle, no parents objected to loosing unsupervised teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.
I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck my folks as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.
Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)
So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.
Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judgement of friends for their son.
The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.
At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.
Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book
All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.
We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.
One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.
We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).
Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law
We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.
At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.
As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.
By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.
(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)
So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.
After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.
By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if Dirty Harry had caught us punks at the scene of our crime.
Instead, Harold the custodian mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.
In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2019, Gen Con drew about 70,000 gamers.
I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.