I found myself with the opportunity to attend Gary Con. Gary Con is a gaming convention held in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin in tribute to Gary Gygax. He co-created Dungeons & Dragons, the quintessential roleplaying game, and created TSR Games to distribute it.
In the decades since the creation of DnD, it has transformed from a modified rule set for war game enthusiasts to entire universe of lore and media. It is now owned by Wizards of the Coast (best known for their own fantasy product, Magic the Gathering), which is owned by Hasbro.
While I appreciate the place that TSR and DnD have in popular culture, I was not feeling up to the prospect of playing table top games for hours on end. And, I must admit that coming as a “looky loo” I may have set myself up for some amount of disappointment. If I demanded that the event “entertain me,” that certainly would have been the case. But as with tabletop gaming itself, one must put some effort into the entertainment.
Being held in Lake Geneva on a blustery weekend lends an air of simplicity to the event. This is not a “big” event by the measures of a modern fan convention. The dealer floor was fairly limited, there were no major brand announcements, no sneak-previews of major media events. I don’t think I saw anything I would consider cosplay.
Gary Con is a beating heart of gaming history. While TSR may be something of a memory, the people who participated in the development of Dungeons and Dragons are all there (at least in spirit if not body).
I feel that I should make a note that while I definitely feel a kinship with the fandom of Gary Con, I am not “of” that fandom. I have played a few RPGs in my day, I’ve had mixed success. Something I picked up and put down easily. I still appreciate the lore it provided me with and a glimpse into the hundred various fantasy stories that inspired DnD’s development. I am pretty sure I would not have read Lord of the Rings if not for Dungeons and Dragons.
There was something of an artist alley… which was small but absolutely stuffed with truly great fantasy artists. Deisel, Jeff Easly, Larry Elmore, each right next to the other. I remember looking at images that Jeff Easly created in all of my classic 2nd edition AD&D books. I didn’t have any money to buy a print, and I was otherwise a little shook to try and say, “hi” without otherwise knowing what to say.
I was lucky enough to have a ‘guide’ of sorts, my cousin-in-law Clif. He’s far more of a fan of tabletop strategy games, which are the lineage that tabletop RPGs hail from going back many decades.
He walked me through the “miniatures room” which was, ironically, one of the largest spaces of the entire event. In the room were massive table-spanning war games. Naval battles, air battles. It’s interesting to see how they systematized these chaotic events.
It was quite fun watching a group of people play a chariot racing game called Circus Maximus, which involves turning all the precise decisions of a charioteer into dice rolls.
Along one wall of the miniatures room, there was a small museum display of Dave Arneson’s contributions to tabletop gaming. Among the items on display were Dave’s original ‘uncommon dice’ (the 4, 8, 10, 12 and 20 sided polyhedrons we know today) and various books and notes he drew inspiration from. Arneson, as much as Gygax, was a key figure in taking the tabletop strategy games and adapting it into the continuous, individual, ongoing roleplaying games we know today.
What is the heart of Gary Con?
It is the spirit of a very straightforward love of games as a means of understanding the world. In its origin, it is a way of simplifying the world. Turning tumultuous battles into manageable war games.
And from that stems this other game. One not rooted in reality, but fantasy. And while it carries over the tradition of measuring, chance, quantifying, it is still about a wish fulfillment. And that is what makes children of men.
On top of that, I can’t help but appreciate the old gray hairs among the crowd. People with a very specific connection to this game. And, in particular, one person: Gary Gygax.
I could not help but love the play floor. A thousand conversations conjuring monsters, starships, kings and treasure. All individually intoning, in silly ways, great drama and tragedy. Ruled by dice and the whims of the Game Masters.
In reading that poem to Gary, I had another realization about the event and the purpose there. Apart from the comics conventions I've seen before, this is kind of a time machine. Especially in the last two lines:
"But what I love for most
Is our past now long a ghost"
That's it right there. Whatever we had we can have again only in fleeting moments. One thing I admire so much about the old gamers there is that they, at least the version I've built in my head, have the ability to put away the adult side of life for a minute. When I see the joy on that person’s face. The puzzling over a quandary of which road to take? Which spell to cast? I see myself in that moment, when I was playing and puzzling and debating and discovering.
And the amazing thing is, that at the end this play thing, these diversions became an industry. People's reputations were staked on it, and their "belonging" was so tied up in it. The play becomes reality and that, in itself, feels magical.