This week in Indianapolis, nearly 30,000 gamers will be convening on the Indiana Convention Center for the annual Gen Con: one of the oldest and biggest gaming conventions around. This isn't a show about videogames. Gen Con was started four decades ago by Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, as a wargaming convention, and still has pen-and-paper games at its heart. D&D fans gather late into the night to role play around one of the many tables throughout the halls. Gen Con is a testament to the passion for RPGs that can be found today in massively multiplayer online videogames from World of Warcraft to EverQuest.
Before he died a few years ago, Gygax continued to host his own summer gaming convention in his hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the original site of Gen Con. I fulfilled a childhood fantasy by traveling there to meet Gygax, and ended up spending a long weekend - talking about his career, and sitting on a game which he ran. Gygax liked to game on the screen porch of his yellow Victorian home in town. Players journeyed from around the world to sit in on a campaign with him. He'd take his seat at the head of the table, unroll some hand drawn maps, crack open a beer, and get going. I'll never forget him taking a break from the game to tell us about his dream of being chased by an elephant through his backyard. A few months later, he passed away.
When I asked Gygax what inspired Gen Con, he said "science fiction conventions, that's what inspired me. I was one of the three founders of the International Federation of Wargaming. And a friend said, 'you know, we need a convention. Gary, go out and do it.' So I said, 'OK.' And I rented the hall, coughed up fifty bucks, which was the cost for one day. And it was mainly IFW people that came. The admission fee was one dollar. I knew I had just enough to pay myself back for having the hall rented. I was delighted. I did all the work. Wow, it was a lot of work - just for fifty people!" Gygax told me that one of the early Gen Con attendees was supposedly related to a mob boss in New York, and when the FBI found out they investigated the group. "The FBI thought it might be a subversive organization, and investigated us," Gygax said.
Before I left, I asked Gygax why he thought role-playing games like D&D continued to survive? “I didn't realize it when I did D&D,” he said, “but it was capturing the heroic quest theme, you know, the call to adventure, all that. And the fact that it even added something to it… It's something in the inner psyche, I think, of humanity, particularly males. And it's so totally removed from the everyday life that it's also appealing, it's great escape.”
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.