On Saturday I drove to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for the second annual Gary Con, a friendly gathering in honor of Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons and the father of role-playing games.
You can read the Tribute to Gary Gygax, written by the staff at Black Gate magazine and Paizo publisher Erik Mona after Gary’s death in 2008, if you’re not familiar with his work.
Lake Geneva is the birthplace of D&D and, consequently, the entire RPG industry. It was here that TSR, the company Gary co-founded in 1973, was headquartered for over two decades, and where many of the creative minds who helped it grow from a fledgling hobby company to the most influential game publisher of the last 30 years still live today – people like Tim Kask, founding editor of Dragon magazine, Gamma World author James Ward, RPGA founder Frank Mentzer, Snit’s Revenge creator Tom Wham, and many others.
The stated goal of the con is to “harken back to the early days of gaming conventions where role-playing was in its infancy and the players shared a strong sense of camaraderie,” and in that respect Gary Con was an unqualified success.
Players gathered around dozens of tables enjoying highlights from TSR’s early catalog, including first edition AD&D, Metamorphosis Alpha, Dawn Patrol, Boot Hill, Dungeon, Chainmail, and more modern games that strive to capture that sense of old-school adventure, such as Hackmaster, Castles and Crusades, and even Gygax’s fondly remembered post-TSR effort, Dangerous Journeys.
Best of all, I saw many renowned game designers and early TSR employees mingling with the crowd, or acting as dungeon masters for classic Gygax modules such as Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, The Temple of Hommlet, and Castle Greyhawk.
Truth to tell, a big part of the reason I made the 90-minute drive was to take up dice against the hill giant chief Nosnra and his brutish comrades in Steading of the Hill Giant Chief again, one of the true highlights of my formative gaming years.
If you played that two-toned adventure module when it first appeared in the late 70s, you know what I’m talking about.
The roots of Gary Con go back to Gary’s funeral service in March, 2008. Gary’s children, including Luke, Ernie, and Heidi Gygax, invited attendees to the American Legion Hall to reminisce about Gary and play games. Afterwards the gathering informally became known as “Gary Con,” and last year Gary’s children announced that it would become an annual event.
The first official Gary Con, held in Lake Geneva in March 2009, attracted over 200 gamers. This year’s attendance by my estimation was over 300, and the event was moved to more spacious surroundings at a lodge just outside town.
Gary Con isn’t just about celebrating the past, however. If it were it wouldn’t hold my interest for long, and I wouldn’t bet much on its future.
The early gaming conclaves it’s trying to emulate (especially GenCon, the massive gathering held annually in Indianapolis and Anaheim, which started in Gary’s basement and was held in Lake Geneva for the first two decades) weren’t about the past. They were all about the future, and the rush of excitement and legendary burst of creativity that accompanied the birth of the role-playing hobby in the 1970s.
So while I wandered the wood-paneled halls of The Lodge, I kept my eye out for anything that looked new, and wasn’t disappointed.
One of the delights of the con for me was the discovery of Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent, an adventure for the forthcoming Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea system by Gary’s Castle Zagyg co-author Jeffrey Talanian. A black and white staple-bound folio sold at a tiny table in the hallway for five bucks, Charnel Crypt reminded me of nothing so much as Dave Arneson’s original Blackmoor supplement, which first appeared in 1975 (and cost about the same.)
According to the program book Talanian was running players through the adventure in one of the gaming rooms, and I wished I’d had a chance to find them. He describes Hyperborea as “largely influenced by the fictional works of R.E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and H.P. Lovecraft.”
That I’d like to see. He promises the rules will see print this year.
Even for a small, relaxed convention, I admit I was frustrated to find there was still too much demanding my attention at once. While events spread over three days my schedule permitted me only a few hours on Saturday, and I had my eye on several tantalizing open gaming sessions, including:
Castle El Raja Key
Game Master: Rob Kuntz
Game System: AD&D
This is your chance to game with one of the original playtesters of Dungeons and Dragons, Rob Kuntz. Rob’s creative credits go back to D&D Supplement I: Greyhawk… do you have the gaming acumen to survive an adventure with the co-DM of Greyhawk behind the screen? Can you match wits with the first player to successfully complete the Tomb of Horrors?
Rob Kuntz is one of the most famous DMs around, and his famed City of Brass, home of the efreeti on the Elemental Plane of Fire, is pictured on the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide.
I was also highly interested in:
Return to the Frozen North
Game Master: Tim Kask
Game System: Original D&D
Tim Kask is back this year with an original OD&D module. And when I say OD&D, I mean OLD Old School – brown box OD&D with supplements. Tim traces his roots back to the earliest days of gaming and was the first full-time employee of a fledgling TSR in 1976. Caution: this adventure is for Expert dungeon delvers…
It’s been a long, LONG time since I’ve played D&D using only the original brown box and its supplements, including Greyhawk and Blackmoor.
Battle for the Moathouse
Game Master: Paul Stormberg
Game System: Chainmail
The Battle for the Moathouse revisits the famed ruins (from T1: The Village of Hommlet) some 9 years earlier, before it fell to the forces of good. A lesser battle in the struggle against the rise of the Temple of Elemental Evil, but still of great importance to those subjugated by its vile Black Lord… you and your team of three players control either the forces of weal or the forces of darkness.
There were other fascinating program items, of course. I could write a whole column just about the sessions I missed, including The Lost Crypts of the Fire Opal, the fully fleshed out version of an unfinished module by Gary Gygax, a Metamorphosis Alpha adventure by the game’s bloodthirsty creator, James Ward (“Jim will run 12 people through the dangerous decks of the Starship Warden. Don’t get too attached to your character”), and even a rousing game of SPI’s long-neglected classic, John Carter Warlord of Mars (published 1979).
When you can find a convention where people still play a 30-year-old science fiction board game made of folding paper, you know you’ve come home. Not to mention a place where people know how to take care of their toys.
Since the convention was in honor of Gary Gygax, I was very pleased to see some testaments to the man himself. A framed collection of photos, mementos, and other ephemera was prominently displayed in the gaming room, right next to Gary’s Table of Honor — a permanent exhibit of a handful of Gary’s favorite gaming tools of choice, including a DM screen and his Hawaiian jacket. It was quite moving to see Gary given a table right in the thick of the action, surrounded by the shouts of gamers and the sound of rolling dice.
Ultimately there was too much to do more than sample all the gaming goodness. I ended up spending most of my time at the Hackmaster table with Jolly Blackburn, his charming wife Barb, Dave Kenzer, and the whole KenzerCo gang, as we delved deep into the troglodyte-infested caves beneath Frandor’s Keep, the latest mega-module set in the Kingdoms of Kalamar.
Speaking of Frandor’s Keep, another highlight of the con for me was finally getting my hands on the published version, and it looks beautiful. Jolly Blackburn’s cover is striking, and the adventure — including a sprawling military outpost in mountainous hinterlands thick with strange creatures, and a complete mini-campaign involving a ghoul-haunted graveyard and a goblin mine — is packed with gorgeous detail.
Designer Steve Johansson, who co-writes the Knights of the Dinner Table strips in Black Gate with me, really outdid himself with this one. The 3D visualizations of the keep itself are striking, and the layout and design are stellar.
I even got credited as a playtester, which was a pleasant surprise, since I was able to attend only a handful of early (but highly memorable) gaming sessions.
About five o’clock, my alter ego, an over-enthusiastic field surgeon nicknamed Freddy the Saw, discovered the hard way why it’s not advisable to over-exert yourself downwind of trogs. Well, at least that gave me the time to attend the auction, where I watched early pieces of gaming history get sold off, including a collection of 1984-86 internal e-mail communications from TSR. I even managed to get caught up in a bidding war for an autographed copy of Troll Lord Games’ The Upper Works, Gygax’s last major adventure to appear before his death.
And I do mean major – Upper Works is part of the Castle Zagyg publishing effort, an attempt to get the original (and massive) Castle Greyhawk, Gary’s personal campaign and perhaps the most famous dungeon in history, into print. The boxed set, co-authored with Jeff Talanian, is packed with content: 200 pages of text in five booklets, fold-out color maps, and detailed player handouts. Go on, ask me how I know.
It’s also something of a rare find, since only a small number of copies were printed before Troll Lords lost the license after Gary’s death. All of which I emphasized to my wife Alice, in an attempt to explain why I paid $100 for a copy.
Didn’t help, but I’m repeating the facts here, in the hopes that someone out there will understand. (You do understand, right? Don’t leave me hanging.)
Oddly enough, this was only my second time in Lake Geneva. My first trip was for a much smaller gathering at Gygax’s home in 2007, shortly before his death.
I’d met Gary a handful of times, mostly at conventions, and while I’m certain he couldn’t pick me out of a line up, he was a gracious host, and enthusiastically agreed to be interviewed for Black Gate – an interview I was still prepping when he died.
I attend a lot of conventions, and while each has its own distinct personality, I’ve yet to encounter one as uniquely friendly and relaxed as Garycon. While I was too young to attend those early GenCon in Lake Geneva all those decades ago, I imagine they were very much like this.
I predict great things for Gary Con. And I hope to see you there next year.
Below are some of the pictures I snapped with Alice’s camera while I wandered the floor. Click on each image for a larger version.
If you’ve enjoyed this convention report, you may also be interested in our report on the 2008 GAMA trade show.
Below are some additional pictures I took of the con (click for bigger images).