There is a large gaming convention that used to run every year in Milwaukee Wisconsin (now moved to Indianapolis, Indiana), by the name of Gen Con. It started out about 40 years ago in a basement in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when a bunch of friends got together to play table-top war games.
It has grown a bit since then. Today, something like 30,000 people attend every year — coming together to play role playing games (“RPGs”) such as Dungeons and Dragons and its many, many descendants. In recent years it has expanded to also include a significant science fiction element — with guest celebrities from movies and television, signings, author presentations, memorabilia, and the like. Between playing everything from chess to D&D to “live action” games and miniatures battles, to game companies showing (and selling!) there latest wares, the convention has plenty for all those thousands to do for four days. A significant reason it left its home in Milwaukee is that that town didn’t have enough hotels to house the attendees! Indianapolis, home to the infamous “500” race, has more room.
I went every single year for about 12 years — I had a place to stay about a hour out of town, and did the commute, rather than spend an extra couple hundo for a hotel (I started going when I was 16).
So, one year I’m roaming through the Great Hall at Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Center, and I come across a large booth hawking a new card game. Card games were hot that year, as Magic: The Gathering had appeared on the scene a year or two previously, and given its creators a virtual license to print money. (That company, Wizards of the Coast, now owns Gen Con, literally.)
The new game was called Legend of the Five Rings. (I could date this specifically from that fact if I wanted to, but off the cuff I think it was about ten years ago.) It was modeled on Japanese mythology, and seemed an interesting concept — so I sat in on a demo.
The first thing I noticed was that this game was bigger than Magic. Where Magic involved two opponents facing off, there were about eight or ten people sitting at the table, and we were all going to be playing one big game. I was at a corner of the long table. There was an older man across from me, and a twelve-or-so year old kid to my left (at the end of the table.)
Before things got going I was chatting a bit with the older guy and the kid. I remember the man well — he was grey haired and balding, with a salt & pepper beard and a friendly face. He and the kid clearly knew each other, as the kid was good-humoredly trash talking the man as the game got under way. (I discovered shortly later that the man was his father — it figures, though the age difference did surprise me a bit….)
The way the game worked, you could ally yourself with another player to take on a third (or an opposing alliance, as the case may be). As this was a demo, they were encouraging us to try such maneuvers out to see how they add richness to the game. I was getting a kick out of the kid, so I decided to ally myself with him against his dad. We played along, working out the new rules and enjoying the game, and after a few minutes I started noticing muttering and a few chuckles coming from further down the table. One comment caught my ear — “He’s taking him on!”
Who’s taking who on? What’s the big deal?
Then I looked down. At the convention, your ticket into events and the Great Hall was a badge that hung around your neck. A badge with your name on it. In large capital letters. The man’s badge said, in large staring-me-in-the-face-for-twenty-minutes black print: Gary Gygax.
If you’ve read this far, you are now in one of two categories: people who just cracked a grin (and maybe uttered a “Cool!”), and people who just said to yourself: “Gary Who”?
Gary Gygax is basically the guy who created Dungeons and Dragons. He’s the guy without whom the 30,000 strong convention I was enjoying at that moment would not exist. And here I was quite genially ganging up with his son against him and handing him his ass in a card game.
Normally in these kinds of situations, I end up at a loss for what to say. But I’d been chit-chatting with the guy for about half an hour by this point. We were practically buds. He was a really nice guy, and I’d liked him a lot before I realized who he was beyond “they guy sitting across from me”.
Naturally, I got his autograph. I still have that Gen Con Four-Day Pass, signed by the man himself.
I am saddened to say that that autograph just became a lot more valuable.
Gary passed away yesterday, March 4, 2008, at his home in Lake Geneva. The world has lost a really nice guy — a real gentleman. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to really meet him — far beyond the two second “autograph table” meetings you usually have with celebs at such events.
R.I.P., Gary. We’ll all miss you.