I really enjoy Gary Con. In both locale and tone it’s very much what I imagine the earliest GenCon gaming conventions – which took place in Lake Geneva over thirty years ago — were like.
Just like the early GenCons it’s small and very friendly, with a focus on vintage gaming and first edition D&D/AD&D, with many early TSR employees and industry giants from that era in attendance.
Just a few of the distinguished guests this year included Basic D&D boxed set author Frank Mentzer; Knights of the Dinner Table creator Jolly Blackburn; author and Dragonlance co-creator Margaret Weis; long-time TSR employee Mike Carr, author of In Search of the Unknown and many others; Troll Lord Games CEO Stephen Chenault; classic AD&D artists Jeff Easley and Jeff Dee; founding Dragon editor Tim Kask; KenzerCo chief David Kenzer; Metamorphosis Alpha creator Jame M. Ward; Snit’s Revenge creator Tom Wham; Dungeons & Dragons 3.0 co-creator Skip Williams, and many others.
One of the marvelous things about small conventions, of course, is that it’s possible to talk to the guests — unlike big cons where they are usually mobbed.
I spent over an hour chatting with Jolly Blackburn and Dave Kenzer, for example, and even had a chance to sit down with Jeff Easley, a marvelous artist whose original dragon sketch in a copy of The Art of the Dragon sent its value skyrocketing to $450 in the Saturday auction.
I had only a few hours to wander the con this year but it was enough to see that Gary Con is growing, and fast.
Just two years ago, at Gary Con II, the convention filled barely half of the bottom floor of The Lodge at Geneva Ridge. With roughly 200 attendees, the Dealer’s Room was modest and the open gaming rooms were lively but limited in variety.
This year attendance was closer to 500, and the halls of The Lodge were packed with gamers moving between the much bigger Dealer’s Room, the Artists Alcove, numerous rooms dedicated to scheduled events, and multiple open gaming halls.
The convention now spanned both floors of the spacious Lodge, and when I walked through the front doors I was surprised to see gaming tables had overflowed to the lobby.
The first thing visitors see is dozens of con goers clustered around tables enjoying a rich variety of RPGs and board games, and an entirely unnecessary sign welcoming them to Gary Con.
The first place I visited this year was the expanded Dealer’s Room, which I was very pleased to see was packed with a much wider selection of vendors.
Jeff Easley had an impressive table right up front, showcasing some of his magnificent art prints. His booth was consistently the most crowded in the room.
I’d hoped to get a chance to catch up with Jeff again after our dinner with my fellow BG blogger Scott Taylor last summer, but the constant mob of admirers at his booth kept me at bay. Ah well, I wanted to look through the Dealer’s Room first anyway.
I was immediately drawn to Jeff Dee’s table, where he had a terrific display of art prints — and appeared to be head down working on more. Jeff also had a lot of original art for sale, including several classic D&D images I recognized immediately.
If I had room in my house to hang artwork, it would be a lot easier to talk myself into buying it. As it is, I usually sigh sadly and move on, which is what I did in this case. Although not without a lingering look or two.
Before I could introduce myself to Jeff and compliment him on his Art Evolution article, I was distracted by a corner booth crammed with eye-catching dice bags.
I’ve never bought a dice bag in my life. And I certainly wasn’t in the market today. I had some money with me, but it was earmarked for the latest rules and adventure modules I’d glimpsed in tantalizing displays a few tables over.
But I hadn’t reckoned with Kelsey “Rose” Jones, who was manning the Games By Gamers booth, and who’d designed the bags.
She spent ten minutes showing me the wonders of her various creations, including the massive Ultimate bag, which holds up to 14 RPG books and comes complete with hidden pockets. Just about the closest I’ve ever seen to a real Bag of Holding, lemme tell you.
I’m a professional salesman, and have sold everything from used books to multi-million dollar software companies, but I wouldn’t like to compare my sales skills against Rose. Ten minutes after I met her I was the proud owner of two beautiful dice bags that I will probably never use.
I completed my purchase and retreated quickly, before I ended up buying her entire stock.
The next table over was another major find: Goblinoid Games, publishers of Labyrinth Lord.
Just last week I was pricing copies of Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion online. Labyrinth Lord is one of the most popular “retro clone” games inspired by the original versions of D&D that use the Open Gaming license.
It is based on Basic Dungeons and Dragons and has a pretty devoted following of fans who use the system to faithfully emulate the simpler old-school gaming experience. I first learned about it at James Maliszewski’s old-school gaming blog Grognardia.
Why not just play Basic D&D or first edition AD&D, rather than a retro-clone?
Well, the rule books are long out of print and hard to find, for one thing. More importantly, you can’t publish new adventures or rules supplements to Basic D&D or AD&D today, due to obvious legal issues. The rights to both are held by Wizards of the Coast.
But you can for Labyrinth Lord, which allows Goblinoid Games and other companies to publish brand new products of real interest to old school gamers.
Exhibit A was right at the booth: Stonehell Dungeon, a classic setting for use with Labyrinth Lord, written by Michael Curtis. This 134-page dungeon crawl is just the upper half of what’s promised to be an epic 12-level megadungeon.
Ah, I’m a sucker for a good megadungeon. If God had meant man to do something other than sit around a table and delve deep into monster-filled caverns on Saturday night, he wouldn’t have given us 20-sided dice. Thanks, God.
I happily bought copies of Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion, as well as Stonehell Dungeon, and met both Dan and Michael, both terrific fellows.
As we chatted I learned Goblinoid Games had recently purchased the rights to Pacesetter’s 30-year-old RPG Time Master. They’ve also acquired the rights to Star Explorer and Starships & Spacemen, classic space-exploration RPGs from Fantasy Games Unlimited, and have made both available again for the first time in decades in high-quality PDF format.
They’re working hard on a new revised second edition of Starships & Spacemen, and had print copies of Mutant Future, a nuclear post-apocalyptic science fantasy game, available at the booth.
You can learn more, and see details on all their exciting projects, at goblinoidgames.com.
Next in my circuit around the Dealer’s Room was Black Blade Publishing, publishers of OSRIC, which uses the Open Gaming License to reproduce the rules of first edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This was my first opportunity to hold a copy in my hands, and I was enormously impressed.
OSRIC, or the Old School Reference and Index Compilation, is a complete ruleset in one big hardcover volume. It’s like getting the Monster Manual, Player’s Handbook, and Dungeon Master’s Guide in one book.
The OSRIC 2.1 rules manage to pack in 413 spells, 285 monsters, 331 magic items in one beautiful, gorgeously illustrated package — all for the criminally low price of $26.
That was pretty hard to say no to, so I didn’t even try.
Jon Hershberger, President and Co-Founder of Black Blade, also proudly showed me the Monsters of Myth hardback, featuring more than 150 new monsters and over 75 highly professional illustrations.
But I was more strongly drawn to some of the packaged modules on their table, especially Lesserton and Mor, a thick Labyrinth Lord adventure from Faster Monkey Games.
Now that I finally had a copy of Labyrinth Lord, all that cash was burning a hole in my pocket. And I’d heard some great things about Lesserton and Mor, compliments of James Maliszewski.
Here’s what he said in his Grognardia review.
Not merely one of the most ambitious old school products released recently but also one of those that puts the lie to the notion that there’s no originality to be found in the old school renaissance… the closest comparison I can make is to Chaosium’s Pavis and Big Rubble boxed sets from 1983, which, like LaM, described an ancient, abandoned city and a nearby inhabited settlement. However, unlike those classic RuneQuest products, LaM is much more compact, consisting a 16-page Player’s Guide to Lesserton (available here as a free PDF), a 68-page Referee’s Guide to Lesserton, and a 28-page Referee’s Guide to Mor, all collected in a sturdy, wrap-around map of the ruins of Mor.
More than enough for me — Pavis and Big Rubble were perhaps my favorite RuneQuest adventure settings, and that’s saying something.
I was delighted to purchase a copy of Lesserton and Mor, and I put a copy of an intriguing new OSRIC adventure module from Pacesetter Games, The Vampire’s Curse, in my shopping bag as well.
The Black Blade Publishing website is here.
There was lots more to the Dealer’s Room, but I had people to see. I made my way through the various halls where scheduled events were taking place, enjoying the elaborate set ups for many of them — especially the Castle & Crusade Society Joust (designed by Gary Gygax), the Siege of Bodenburg, the meeting of the Pathfinder Society, and the finest Kingmaker map I’ve ever seen.
They were proudly displaying page proofs of their upcoming HackMaster Player’s Handbook, the follow-up to the insanely popular Hacklopedia of Beasts, and conducting HackMaster play demos for enthusiastic newbies.
They also had several of their newest releases on display, including issue 184 of Knights of the Dinner Table (184!! that’s incredible), Bundle of Trouble 35, and Wrath of the Vohven, a campaign setting for HackMaster Basic.
Look closely enough at the cover to Vohven and you can see the two lizardmen in the greenery (and two in the water) about to ambush those unsuspecting adventurers.
I wrote a book review column in the back of Knights of the Dinner Table roughly a decade ago, when I shared an office with Dave at Motorola, and we used to game together on weekends. Seems the only chance we get to play together these days is at Gary Con.
[In fact, I recently discovered a YouTube video of the last HackMaster game session I played at Gary Con II, just before my cleric and field medic Freddy the Saw had an unfortunate encounter with some Trogledytes, here. The camera pans to our table at around 5:25 in the video. That's me on the left in a brown sweater, constantly stroking my chin to encourage my beard to grow.]
By the time I wandered back to the Dealer’s Room, hoping to finally introduce myself to Jeff Dee, I discovered the doors were closed. Looks like they closed up early, possibly in preparation for the auction happening upstairs.
I made it upstairs in time to find a good seat for the live auction, which was introduced by Luke Gygax. Frank Mentzer and Tim Kask were the lively and entertaining auctioneers, who kept things moving and made sure the audience knew exactly what they were bidding on.
Early in the auction Frank and Tim announced they were “getting the band back together” to publish great RPG products again, and had formed Eldritch Enterprises with Chris Clark and James M. Ward (also called “Eldritch Entertainment” on the website, for mysterious reasons).
Stay tuned for product announcements.
After that, it was time to head home. It was over an hour from Lake Geneva to St. Charles and, while it would have been fun to stay for some of the evening gaming sessions — including Chris Clark DM’ing the first Eldritch Enterprises adventure Forest of Deceit, Jeff Dee running Terror of the Lost Valley, Jeffrey Talanian introducing the second adventure for Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, Taken From Dunwich, and a midnight trip through the Tomb of Horrors, compliments of Byron Petrie.
But Alice wanted her minivan home, and until I buy a new car (following the death of my beloved Audi), my evening excursions are more limited than I might wish.
I did make a final walkthrough, snapping as many photos as I could of the proceedings. I’ve reproduced a selection below. Click any of them for larger versions.
Interestingly, when I registered for Gary Con V was asked to fill out a survey. One of the questions made it clear that the con was growing so quickly that the organizers were forced to consider other locales for next year. The only only options that made sense were moving to downtown Lake Geneva, or moving to Milwaukee — just as the original GenCon did, when it grew too large for its humble roots last century.
Wherever Gary Con V is held, I hope to see you there. Until then, game on.
[You can see my report on 2010's Gary Con II here].