GenCon '95 -- An Unofficial Perspective

It may come as no surprise to people who've had any contact with the gaming industry recently that this year's GenCon was larger than any other, packed with cards, cards and more cards. Few of the promised games actually made their release at the convention, though all manufacturers were running demos and frantically foisting off sample cards to anyone who would walk close enough to them. Besides being bogged down with fistfuls of random cards from games that will surely never see too much play, I have seen and heard too many things in the last week to keep that awful knowledge hidden any longer.

The TSR Castle.

Here is my admittedly subjective report on the convention.


I had been in Wisconsin for two days already, visiting family in Madison, when I made my way to Milwaukee. My hair was green. It's a long story.

I met my sister, Amy Christine, at her place when she got off work. I hadn't seen her in awhile, and I'd been looking forward to catching up. She opened the door, gave me a big hug and said, "So, how 's In Nomine doing?"

I laughed, and thus began my involvement in a popular GenCon tradition: asking game designers why their projects hadn't yet seen the light of day. It was the question I was asked most often over the next week. We made special t-shirts -- "For God's sake . . . do NOT ask about IN NOMINE" -- described alternately as "cool," or "smarmy," depending on how personally hurt you felt about not being able to get a copy of the book at the con. (No, it's not out yet. Yes, it is coming out. If we thought there was some horrible snag that we were all up in arms about, we would just stop talking about it and not continue to hand out posters and run demos.)

Folks playing games.

Anyway, we picked up Stephane Bura, a travelling Frenchman who specializes in neural net things that I can hardly comprehend, and who just signed a contract with us to work on a new SJ Games project. If Steve were right here, I'd ask him if I could tell you about it, but I'm not going to be the leak in this particular ship. Our ship leaks only from the top, to massacre a metaphor. You'll hear more about it soon.

"Your hair is green," Stephane said. I allowed as how I knew that.

Tuesday night heralded the beginning of another popular GenCon tradition that even industry boys like myself still take part in -- the "Pile 'Em All In" ritual of crashing twice as many people into a hotel room as was allowable by local fire codes. Stephane didn't have a place to stay, so I said he was welcome to crash with Jeff Koke and I, who would be sharing a room. Jeff and Stephane had run into each other on the net before, and we all got along fine. When Jeff's brother Jak arrived the fun really began in our tiny room at the Hotel Wisconsin -- as Jeff described the place, "Old world charm . . . without the charm."


The first day of the con for the manufacturers, this is the day we go into the non-air-conditioned exhibit hall in the heat of Milwaukee's summer and assemble our booths. Some people, like Jill Lucas and her staff at FASA, had started building their area the day before. Dana Blankenship, in her final performance as Boothinatrix, ran our space with amazing grace, especially considering that within a week she would be moving to the east coast and getting married. Yikes.

The TSR Castle.

As we put our booths together, we like to mill around and aquaint ourselves with the lay of the land -- who's-set-up-where-wise -- and catch up with friends we have at other game companies.
Even though the convention hadn't actually opened yet, I had already gotten to the point where when someone asked me about In Nomine, I wanted to say, "The higher my blood pressure soars from talking to you about it, the longer it will be until it actually comes out," but I thought people might take it too personally. And even though I wore my "For God's Sake . . . " t-shirt, people still asked me about it. On the back, it had the answers to the ten most commonly asked questions about the project. "What do you want to know that's not on the shirt?" I said. And still they asked. It was inevitible. I didn't wear the shirt the rest of the con, but many, many other people did.

Wednesday night hooked me back up with some of my European travelling friends, like John Nephew and his crew from Atlas, and James Wallis of Hogshead, who had a miserable trip over from London.

James Wallis and Robin Laws

"You know," John observed sagely, squinting his eyes over whatever the hell it was he was drinking, "you can't toss a croissant at this con without hitting a Frenchman." I knew what he meant. It seemed like everyone I'd met in Europe had made it to Milwaukee -- like the people from French gaming companies Siroz, Halloween Concepts and Jeux Decartes, just to name a few. Anywhere you tossed an anything, you'd peg a Frenchman right in the center of his beret-crested head.

Or a German (like the people from Truant, Welt der Spiel and the Pegasus boys), or a Belgian (like the Carta Mundi folks and people from Wizards of the Coast's Belgium office), or a Brazillian (like Thad and Douglas from Devir Livraria) or an Australian, or a Brit. This was the most international GenCon ever.

And I stumbled through the whole affair feeling like a poor host. I wish I could've shown them a little more of America than the nexus of stress that is GenCon, but you don't cross the Atlantic on a business trip to blow off work and check out museums. At least, people who aren't Americans don't do it, but we had fun anyway.


It's a terrible thing that -- what with all the good friends people make at conventions, and how much fun we all have hanging out together -- we in the industry only see each other at our very worst. We only get to be with those people with whom we have the most in common at our (and their) most absurdly stressful. Like when distributors are pulling at sleeves and freelancers are trying to show portfolios and you're trying to grab lunch ("No, I don't have time for lunch, I'll grab a snack later."), grab a snack ("No, no time for a snack, dinner's soon."), grab dinner ("Well, maybe if I just drank a lot of water real fast.") and at some point plan for sleep ("If I hang at the Belmont until it closes, then work on the characters for my demo, I can get four hours of sleep. Five if I skip breakfast.") Sometimes, you skip breakfast.

But really, hands down, Thursday is the best day. That's when the splendor of GenCon is new, the booths are well-stocked, and people haven't gotten tired of giving their pitch.

The SJ Games Booth

Scott Haring and Jeff Koke had their hands full running the INWO Tournament, and next to the booth staff (who grew increasingly tired of answering questions about a certain game) probably worked the hardest of all the SJ Games crew. Scott's out this week on vacation, recovering.

We got GURPS IOU on Thursday, and it sold out before the end of the con. Cudos to Walter and Beth Milliken, cudos to Phil and Kaja Foglio, all of whom were at GenCon beaming brightly and signing copies. It's a good book.

The only disappointing thing about GenCon was that there was no one single product that everyone said was a must-get. Everway was there, and it looked really cool. Changeling was there, but it'd come out before the con. Lots of other things came out . . . but there was no One Big Thing.

The Last Unicorn Games booth.

Instead, there were lots and lots of Just Cool Things, like Buttery Wholesomeness, the first supplement for Hol. Get it. Also, you should check out Guardians, a card game that should be in a store near you pretty soon now. This game gets my vote for "Card Titles Most Fun to Pronounce," with the diabolically cute "Schneeble." Say it. "Schneeeeble. Schneeeeeeeble." Don't forget the clan head, "Grand Pooba Schnee." In my book, Guardians and Heretic, also shipping soon, were neck and neck for Best Art in a New Card Game.


Friday, the second day of the con, is generally the most stressful. Even more people show up, and you begin to steel your nerves for Science-Fiction Saturday, when all the stars the various companies had convinced to show up for signings would generate crowds and lines the likes of which hadn't been seen since the release of Jyhad last year, or Mage the year before.

But I wasn't impressed. I mean, stars are just these people who get pulled out of their normal lives by the attractive lure of money to spend the weekend with people they don't really care anything about, and are generally pretty rude to. And it's not like you'll ever get to talk to one of these people, have a real conversation with them, one person to another. That much was general knowledge, and my state of mind.

Misc. Star Trek paraphenalia

Friday night, on the way to the TSR party, Dana and I ran into James Doohan in the Hyatt's glass elevator. You know who James Doohan is.

Now, I'm not a huge Star Trek fan. For lots and lots of reasons, I have issue with Star Trek. But there I was, looking at Scotty and 'lo and behold, the largest and most powerful grin I have ever felt on my face grew and stretched itself across my face and stayed plastered there until I regained my composure what felt like only a few minutes later.

"I'm a big fan of yours!" said Dana. We all were. Everyone was nodding, eyes wide. He was a very nice man. He was very unassuming, and I felt he was genuinely enjoying the con. Many people I talked to had similar "Scotty" stories to tell. He's just a nice guy that had a good time at our weird little shindig.

T. Brian from WotC in full regalia.

After that, the TSR party seemed a little anti-climactic. There was no large paladin-like figure bouncing people at the door, but they were serious about the ticket-thing. No one got in without one and lived to tell the tale.

With thousands of people crammed onto the floor of the MECCA, the convention center where GenCon actually took place, there was a different feeling than in the TSR party, where we knew that random gamers weren't milling about. Somehow, that made it worse. Imagine 150 of the most insecure people you know, some of whom don't like each other, holding their beers and darting their eyes around while they try talk to you.

"Hey," said one drunk, a man I didn't recognize but who was obviously a close, personal confidant of mine, "hey, In Nomine, what happened?"

"It's not out yet," I said.


Saturday was the busiest day, with the loudest parties. Between running crowded In Nomine demos, the day was one big blur. Scott and Jeff had their hands full with INWO and I understand Dana and Steve spent what little free time they had remembering how to breath.

And the Chaosium booth?

I did get to see a preview of Mythos, the Lovecraftian card game from Chaosium. I'll be working up a more complete write-up in the next week or two, but in the meantime here's two words: buy it.

By Saturday, the heat was starting to get to people. Being from Texas, this was the only factor that didn't bother us. Many northerners (and Europeans) muttered on about global warming. "Warming, schmorming," I said, cheerfully withstanding what was by Milwaukee standards apocalyptic weather. "It's just the world accommodating itself to my own personal taste," we said, as the local breweries and factories pumped more smoke into the atmosphere. The fireworks from the State Fair helped a bit too, and looked pretty besides.

Saturday night was the Wizards of the Coast party, the SJ Games/Atlas Games shindig, and the White Wolf bash. Another true sign of the industry getting larger: people were big on invitations this year, not just TSR, and this most sharply drew the line between the haves and the have-nots. Many people made it by all three parties, if briefly. After that, many remnants ended up across the street, at the Belmont.

And that's all I have to say about Saturday night.


Sunday was a slow, painful day for me. I missed the second annual Nerf(tm) siege on the TSR castle, but I heard it was glorious. All the manufacturers and distributors who thought to bring their Nerf weapons, of all shapes and sizes, attacked the valient TSR employees who attempted to rebel the invading independant forces. Imagine a dynamic, interactive plastic foam sculpture as a recreation of the state of the comics market, with TSR standing in for Marvel.

I spent a good part of the morning hanging out with Edmond from The Familiar Magazine, a briskly-growing independent game publication. Their magazine doesn't have the slick presentation of others', but they do manage to cram in a good deal of content. If your genre of choice happens to be featured in an issue, you'll like it.

Misc. computer screens.

But the true pain that is The Ending of GenCon doesn't really set in on Sunday until just past mid-day, when the traders start coming by. That is, the people who are helping various companies at their booths -- who get compensated in product, not money -- and want to trade some of their product for some of your product. I'm not into the trading thing (I'd rather people send me stuff than lug it all back from GenCon), but there is always something cool about, "Hey, this is the copy of X I got at GenCon '95, where it was released." You know, books as modern artifacts and all that.

Overly cute picture of Cody Pondsmith

Cody Pondsmith, first child of Lisa and Michael, the R. Talsorian wunderkinds, has technically been to as many GenCons as I have. By the end of it all, even he was pretty tired.

The last day, no one asked me about In Nomine, although people who'd asked me about it before continued their gentle ribbing. Me oh my. After tear-down, and an overly long quest for food on the parts of Scott, Jeff, Stephane, my sister and myself, the evening deteriorated into the Hyatt, then the Safe House, then oblivion.


Monday was good. I slept Monday. Jeff and his brother had left earlier. Half the room looked suddenly empty and I realized the party was over -- in fact, I realized that it had been a party. A pretty fun party which had felt like work at the time, a fairly engaging party that had sprawled across the better part of a week of my life. I packed my crap, saw Stephane off, got on the shuttle and headed out to the airport.

At the airport, waiting in line to check my luggage, the guy in front of me turned around and asked, "Hey, weren't you at GenCon?"

I admitted as how I had been there with Steve Jackson Games. He smiled with recognition, eyes glinting, started to say something, then stopped himself.

"I won't ask," he said, and turned back around. That was nice of him. The con was, after all, over. Maybe he'll have his chance next year.

-- Derek Pearcy

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