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Monday, August 8, 2011

The Old Goat Finally Goes to GenCon, Part 1

Growing up, I read about fan conventions and had a core list of conventions I wanted to eventually attend. The list grew as I got older the list grew but my increased freedom to travel also made it easier to begin checking conventions off that list. Two of the biggest conventions on the list were a World Science Fiction Convention and the San Diego ComicCon. I checked both of them off the list before the end of the '80s, leaving only one "biggie" on the list. (Dragon*Con would have been on that list if I hadn't grown up a comparatively short two hour drive from Atlanta.) That final "biggie" was GenCon, a convention begun by Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, in the basement of his house in Lake Geneva, WI.

GenCon is just a bit bigger these days than it was in the '70s when a few dozen people gathered for a weekend of gaming in the Gygax basement. Now in its tenth year in Indianapolis, GenCon draws in excess of 30,000 people to a four-day celebration of non-electronic gaming. And, after three decades of wishing, I was finally going to be among their number.


We drove to the convention. And we drove. And we drove. Leaving around 8:00 AM Wednesday morning, we were on the road for the next eleven and a half hours. We stopped once for gas, hit a fast-food drive-thru window shortly after that, and made one other rest stop. Yep, I'm one of those once-I'm-on-the-road-I-want-to-stay-on-the-road kind of drivers. Fortunately, the Boy agrees with this approach and Audrey either agrees with it or has long since accepted it.

After checking into the hotel, we headed down to the convention center in hopes to picking up our badges the day before the convention opened. It turned out the line for the will-call window was very long and had just been closed off for the night by the staff. We were told it would open again at 7:00 AM Thursday morning.


Leaving Audrey and the Boy to sleep in, I walked the half mile from the hotel to the convention center. I figured the line would have already formed and it had. I was hoping the line might not be too, too long yet, but it was. The head of the line was about 100 feet behind where I was standing when I took the photo below (taken on Friday, long after the line was gone). See that blurry bit of daylight wa-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay at the end of the hallway? The end of the line was about 100 feet closer than that.

Unlike Dragon*Con, GenCon mails badges to people who registered far enough in advance. We didn't register far enough in advance, so I knew I'd be facing lines but had hoped most of the people attending would have already gotten their badges. Had so many people really not registered far enough in advance to get their tickets by mail? No. It turned out that GenCon's website had a bug. The check box requesting the badge be mailed to the person could be selected but the selection wasn't recorded in the database. By the time the bug was noticed by the GenCon staff, it was too late to mail badges, meaning everyone who pre-registered stood in the will-call line. (I hereby offer my services as a software tester to verify their website next year. In return, all I ask are free badges for my family and a nice room in one of the hotels across the street from the convention center.)

A Kindle is an amazingly handy device to have while standing in a long line at a convention. Mine was loaded with Timothy Zahn's newest Star Wars novel, so time moved fairly swiftly. Surprisingly, so did the line. An hour after getting in line, I was standing where I had been when I took the photo. Another 15 minutes and I had our badges and had moved to yet another line to buy tickets for an event the Boy and I planned to take part in (more on that later). I was back at the hotel by 9:00 AM. We woke up the Boy and prepared to explore GenCon.

As I said before, GenCon is all about gaming. There was some kind of writer's track but it was stuck off in some corner somewhere, well off the mainstream. Meanwhile, the gaming part of the convention took up most of the Indiana Convention Center, the long hallway in the photo above is but two thirds the length of the front of the building. It goes about the same distance back, too, and has a second floor. Gaming also took up large public areas in five nearby convention hotels. We never saw everything nor did we try, but here's a sample.

This hall, which actually looks smaller in the photo than it did in real life, was dedicated mostly to board games by smaller publishers and older games that aren't even in print any more.

I swear the Indianapolis Colts could run a full practice inside the room. Do you see the opening in the far opposite corner of the room? It has a yellow sign in front of it. That led to another room full of gaming. Again, the room looks smaller in the photo below than it really is.

If the Colts could practice inside the first room, they could have played a full-field football game inside this room. I never saw this room when it wasn't packed with people playing demonstrations of the latest offerings from game publishers or playing in one of the many, many gaming tournaments held at GenCon. These tournaments included many world and North American championships and had some really serious prizes lined up for the winners and top finishers.

After gawking at all that was going on around us, we stepped through a simple door and into the Exhibit Hall, aka the dealers' room. For those of you who remember the three packed dealers' rooms at Dragon*Con, here's a dealers' room done right:

Some of the larger publishers literally setup small stores within the dealers' room, including portable walls, an entrance, and roped-off areas for lines to form to enter the store. Setups like that tend to block the full scope of the room so I'll just say this room was bigger than either of the previous two. If you were looking for something gaming related and it was published within the last few years, chances are extremely high that it could be found somewhere inside this room. I prowled the room several times over the weekend and am still sure there were things I missed.

The three of us just sort of basked in the glow of all of this gaming goodness while waiting for the event I mentioned earlier. The Boy was seriously chomping at the bit to get to this event, so we ended up heaving over there a bit early. The event is something called True Dungeon, easily GenCon's most popular -- and most expensive -- event.

True Dungeon

In its original design, Dungeons & Dragons was about a band of brave adventurers daring to enter the underground ruins of the lair of some long-dead (the players hoped) wizard or demon or powerful lich (an undead wizard and a real badass opponent to face). The entire game was an exercise in imagination as the players tried to "see" themselves actually within the dark, walled confines of the dungeon. The idea behind True Dungeon is to take the players a few steps closer to the reality of the dungeon.

The set for a "dungeon" was laid out in a large ballroom in one of the hotels across the street from the convention center. The portable walls are light plastic molded to look like stone walls. Each room has a volunteer who introduces the room, reading the appropriate text describing the room and the initial action. There are full sized props and large-scale monster models to further encourage suspension of disbelief. Rooms either feature a puzzle to be solved or a monster to fight.

Puzzle-solving is entirely left to the brains of the intrepid band of adventurers. The puzzles are clever and complex enough that the time required to solve them pushes the room's time limit but not so hard as to be impossible to solve. Combat is highly abstracted and involves sliding markers representing weapons down a polished, wooden board at a diagram of the monster your group is fighting. Having your marker land on a particularly vulnerable spot results in damage being dealt to the monster. Magic has its own set of rules but features some similar abstractions. Each of the players, of which there can be up to ten, chooses a character class; elf wizard, dwarf fighter, rogue, etc. Each class has certain strengths which may be used to help the group succeed in their quest. It's up to the group to use those abilities to their best advantage.

The Boy and I joined four others in the adventure The Lair of the Sea-Lich. Our group should have had a full compliment of ten but four ticket-holders failed to show up. (By this time, the line for the will-call window went up the long hallway, back down the long hallway, then out door and up a block or so on the sidewalk outside of the convention center. We assume our missing adventurers were somewhere in that line.) Unfortunately, the difficulty of the adventure doesn't appear to be keyed to the number of players in the group. Our small band was in dire peril every time we were forced to fight monsters. Fortunately, each room is timed, so not all fights had to be to the death. Most of our fights ended with us limping off, our warriors grievously wounded, on to the next battle.

I was playing a wizard and happily stayed on the back lines, tossing spells and firing off wand attacks at the various monsters. That lasted until we were about halfway through when I attracted the attention of a giant squid (it was an underwater adventure). Two rounds of combat later, my wizard's corpse was laying on the floor. I was allowed to wander with the group and see the rest of the adventure but was unable to speak or offer advice. I entertained myself by making ghostly "woo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o" noises. My last bit of ghostly fun came in the final room. I was standing out of the way, watching as the remaining five adventurers battled a rust monster, when a shapely lass made-up as the sea-lich came into the room to add a further complication to the combat. Leaning in close to me, she cackled something about how we were all going to die. In my ghostly voice, I replied, "I'm already dead." I'll give the young lady points, she never missed a beat, simply turning and saying the same line to one of the other adventurers.

In the end, only three of our original six adventurers survived. The Boy was among the survivors, something he reminded me of for the rest of the day. I found the event entertaining enough but the Boy absolutely loved it. He had so much fun that we let him run through a different adventure on Friday. This time around he was part of a full ten person group. Despite the increased numbers, only two of the ten survived to exit the dungeon. The boy was, yet again, one of the survivors.

Why did I spend so much time discussing this event? Two reasons: it is the single largest, most popular event at GenCon and it is a serious money making machine. Tickets to True Dungeon cost $38 per person. A sold out adventure had ten people running. Three adventures are running at once. A new set of three adventures kicks off every ten minutes (thus the time limit in the rooms). All told, 619 True Dungeon adventures were run during the four days of GenCon. All but a few tickets for the very earliest adventures were sold, meaning True Dungeon brought in something on the order of $235,000 on ticket sales alone. I saw a family of six exit an adventure, having spent more on the two hour True Dungeon adventure than they'd have spent for a full day at all but the most expensive theme parks. The cash engine doesn't stop at ticket sales, either.

The equipment used by adventurers has to be purchased. Equipment is represented by a small token with a picture of the piece of equipment on the token (for a look at some tokens, check the True Dungeon store here). Taking a cue from collectible card games such as Magic: the Gathering, more powerful tokens are far rarer than regular tokens. Each pack of tokens cost $8 for 10 tokens, eight common token, one uncommon token, and one rare token. Players do get a pack of tokens as part of their $38 ticket fee, but few adventurers rely only on those ten tokens. Based on the number of tokens I saw people carrying around, trading, and outright selling, I'd guess they sold well over one thousand token packs during the convention (probably more like two thousand). That's another $80,000 to $160,000 in sales and a grand total that could reach as high as $400,000. Not bad for a four day convention.

This has already run as long as I originally intended the entire column to be. I'll write up the rest of the convention in part two, coming to a Friday Challenge near you Real Soon.
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