Over the following years, I began to take a special interest in the game convention listings within Dragon magazine. I really had no idea of what a gaming convention consisted of but the concept was appealing to me. My folks were great about encouraging my new hobby and in the spring of 1983, we made the jaunt up to St. Catherine’s, Ontario, for the Niagara Gamefest & Computer Show.
It was the most amazing thing in the world to me! I had played D&D (perhaps AD&D by now) with my neighborhood friends for a few years by this time. However, we were a very isolated group and at times it seemed like we were the only ones out there. This small, weekend convention opened my eyes to how popular this hobby indeed was.
Everywhere I looked, there were new RPGs that I had never even heard of. On top of that were the wargames. I had been familiar with miniatures from the tiny gaming store (Campaign HQ) which existed in downtown Rochester. Despite this, I had never seen anything on the level of the massive miniature armies that were on display at the wargame section of the convention.
Probably more important to me than the sensory overload was the reaction that I received from other (mostly older) gamers. Here I was, a 12-year-old kid, and everybody treated me as an equal. It was the most welcoming environment that I had ever been in. It didn’t matter whether I was in a Car Wars event with college kids or trying my hand at Napoleonics with 50 year olds, it was all good. I was hooked.
Later that year, we traveled to the grandaddy of them all. Gen Con was held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside that summer. If my first convention had amazed me, this simply blew my mind. It was everything that I had experienced before, times 10!
The campus was in a rural setting, near Racine so my folks felt comfortable dropping me off in the morning and then picking me up at then end of the day. I had been late in registering so I only had tickets for a couple of events. It didn’t matter though, as the concourse of the of the campus was filled with open gaming events that anyone could play.
I don’t think I had a spare minute the whole time that I was there. Groups would literally, just huddle up on the floor and break out with a session of some game. People would be playing Ogre just a few feet from a group running Champions, while across the hall, a couple were engaged in Ace of Aces. Again, it didn’t matter that I was just a kid. All I had to do was stand around for a few moments and somebody would be asking me if I’d like to join a game.
The miniatures battles that took place in the wargaming area were immense. The largest of these was a multi-day recreation of one of the crusades. I literally watched for hours, fascinated with the detail of the models and terrain.
The dealer’s room at Gen Con was massive. Games, dice, miniatures, apparel, and every other possibly gaming-related item were on sale. I would just walk from booth to booth and listen to everyone pitch their products.
Often vendors would have “mini-games” set up to let folks try out their system so this filled a bit of time as well. I was lucky enough to meet Mark Acres & Tracy Hickman, while playing a demo for Gangbusters. Mark had helped design the game and Tracy would go on to co-author the successful Dragonlance series.
Yes, I have very fond memories of my first gaming conventions. I returned to Gen Con the following year and Origins, the year after that. Gaming is a hobby which has always had a certain, social stigma attached to it. As such, I’ve always found the shared experience of a large gaming convention to be very refreshing.