Gen Con 1981: From D&D Nerdvana to Stranded by My Lies

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.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

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).

ICE advertisement

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.

6 thoughts on “Gen Con 1981: From D&D Nerdvana to Stranded by My Lies

  1. Lich Van Winkle

    DM David, thank you for this memory. I grew up very near to you, a few years younger than you, and I’d bet we may have crossed paths at Games Plus without knowing it. Everything you describe is true to my experience: falling between jock and freak cliques in the Chicago suburbs (though I ended up in the latter), hearing from a few friends and parents that D&D was not right and maybe unsafe, and dreaming of the annual gamer Mecca to the north: GenCon. I didn’t attend until I was old enough to drive. By then it was held at MECCA and had become a huge zoo. I was too poor and too shy to sign up for other people’s games, although I got invited to play-test some things just by loitering around for a minute with a female player in our group. Instead I saved my money to buy every game book I could find. The story you tell about being stranded is pretty funny, but I bet it wasn’t funny then.

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  2. Rasmus Nord Jørgensen

    Great story. I attended my first Con with a younger friend around age 12 circa 1991 in Denmark. It was a small Con – a couple of hundred people – and we slept at my grand parents flat. It was glorious even though we were looked down on a bit due to our young age. And already then, I knew enough to recognise that the D&D adventure we played that was a direct copy of Conan the Destroyer – including the location of the secret door – wasn’t very good! D&D scare never came to secular Denmark, but the game also came 10 years later.

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  3. ThrorII

    “Mike and I lacked the athletic prowess of the sportos and proved too mild for the freaks, so we kept gaming.”

    Yup, pretty much.

    I too played AD&D in 81 (I was 12, in 6th grade). But I lived in So Cal., so GenCon was never an option.

    Good times, in retrospect, I’m sure. A world without cell phones, hover-parents, but a world of fun and adventure.

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  4. hellenbrandj

    David thank you for posting this again. I grew up in South Central Wisconsin and only made it to Gen Con with my family in Indy (2016). I just couldn’t scrape together the funds or a ride–I spent a little bit on AD&D and saved the rest for university. But in rural Dane County at least among my friends there was no Satanic Scare so we had a stable gaming group. Did you ride your bike all over to games before you could drive? Season 1 of “Stranger Things” was like 8th and 9th grade for me.

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  5. Ilbranteloth

    Fun story. But…

    “I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.”

    Hmmm. And perhaps it’s more a question of whether it’s well-designed rules that matter, and not ‘realism’ or something less so?

    We still prefer something far more ‘realistic’ than 5e, and our system provides that for us. It’s a sliding scale anyway, and I remember Arms Law, Rolemaster, MERP and the variations that ICE produced. I still think the MERP supplements are some of the most interesting and well presented released, feeling much more like scholarly cyclopedias than just a game.

    The bottom line is that there is a difference between realistic/not so much which is a playstyle and the design of the rules to support that playstyle.

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