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GenCon, the annual gaming convention held in Indianapolis, Indiana, is the largest gathering of consumer hobby game enthusiasts on the planet. “Game enthusiast” is the preferred industry term, but what we’re really talking about is the enduring type known as the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) geek. These are the people into tabletop role-playing games — you know, 20-sided dice, little painted dragon miniatures, half-elves — that sort of thing. About 30,000 people attended this year’s convention, and they swarmed downtown Indy wearing full combat armor or faerie wings or… whatever, and basically freaking the locals out.


The con only recently moved to Indianapolis Convention Center, after having spent more than 30 years in smaller incarnations elsewhere. In the last three years it has grown substantially, and it’s very fun to watch the gamer crowd and the downtown service economy collide. At one hotel entrance, a small crowd had gathered to watch a fully armored gladiator try to get into a cab. Trickier than you might think. At the Starbucks, I saw Boba Fett order a soy latte, and later I bummed a cigarette off a vampire in the alley. Bright daylight, too, but she kept to the shadows, which in her case is good policy, I think.


Quite frankly, these are my kind of people. I played D&D and other role-playing games religiously from fifth grade through high school. Then I decided to be cool instead, and spent several years listening to fashionable music with fashionable people and taking fashionable drugs. But I eventually came back to the gaming culture of my youth, and as such am now a seasoned veteran of GenCon. Every year I find newer and weirder things to do. At one point, I found myself in an impossibly intricate game that combined elements of poker, chess, Stratego, Scrabble and beach volleyball. I’m not kidding.


Dungeons and Dragons is the game that started it all, but now there are hundreds of variations on the theme—tactical combat games, collectible card games, and even live action role-playing games where players eschew dice and rules to instead dress up and hang out “in character” for days at a time. D&D is relatively small part of the scene now, as a handful of big companies and dozens of smaller indie developers publish games on just about any topic you can imagine. The swords-and-sorcery genre is still the most popular, but you can be a spy in a 007 kind of game, a Rebel Alliance pilot in a Star Wars game, or — one of my favorites — an insane investigator facing otherworldly horrors in a world based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. And at GenCon, you can feel free to indulge to whatever degree you prefer. You don’t have to dress as a cyclopean nightmare god of madness, but you’re certainly welcome to. Just keep your tentacles out of the bean dip, chief.


It’s endlessly entertaining, and about as much fun as you can have if you’re at all into this stuff. One of the things I really like is that, for the younger kids who remind me so much of myself at that age, GenCon is a place where they can walk around for four days, do their thing, and not worry about getting beaten up. In fact, if they’ve got a particularly cool costume worked out, they’ll get congratulated and people will want to take pictures. One kid had a spot-on Bilbo Baggins thing going and couldn’t walk two steps without stopping to pose. The costume was truly impressive, worthy of Hollywood, and he even had individual hairs glued to the top of his bare feet. The kid was with his parents, who were in turn dressed as a regal elf and a snarly dwarf. Just another happy American nuclear family, heading downtown for a good time. Except with, you know, short swords and tower shields.


For us older, more entrenched geeks, we skip the costumes (mostly) but get to indulge in our own strange obsessions and have brutally arcane conversations that are barely English at all:*


Me (approaching a volunteer at the tournament booth): Hi. I’m registered for the peasant Magic Swiss tourney. Do I need my deck checked?


Volunteer (dressed as Darth Maul): What are you playing?


Me: Well, um, it’s a green speed deck, and another is black-red burn.


Volunteer: You’ll need fast mana. You gonna cycle those spawners?


Me: I think so, but these Tempest land denials are weird, and I don’t know whether to go with flying merfolk Timothys or a regenerating phalanx of sideboard countermagic—


Volunteer (looking over my shoulder interrupts): Hey! Gandalf! Where you been, man?


*Note: all gamerbabble from this conversation is taken more or less verbatim and makes perfect sense in context. Really.


There’s a general feeling afoot these days that gaming culture is coming out of the closet, shedding its nerdy rep, and going mainstream. A lot of it has to do with the booming console videogame industry. The dice and card stuff used to be the domain of very dedicated hardcore gamers, but the crossover success of films and videogames have spawned a new generation of overlapping systems. You can find some version of D&D on all videogame formats, and also as a tabletop miniatures game, a live-action RPG, and the old-school pencil-and-paper system. There have also been many D&D TV shows and movies. The comic book heroes of Marvel and DC can now be played in all the above game systems as well, and of course, you may be aware that a few movies in this vein have found some success.


Tabletop games, comics, fantasy, sci-fi, videogames and attendant emerging technologies are all jumbling into a giant cultural clusterfuck, and I for one am glad to see it. Film, comics and videogames have their own massive conventions (with their own intenser-than-thou participants), but I imagine I will always prefer GenCon and the old-school game systems. A big part of the appeal of tabletop gaming is the physical interaction with friends and other more-or-less real people—rolling dice, spilling coffee, and meticulously consulting the 3,000-or-so rulebooks required. You don’t really get that with movies, comic books, or videogames, which are essentially solitary experiences. One of the guys working the D&D booth put it really well. “When I think back on all the great times I had gaming, it’s about the shared experience. It’s like improv storytelling, a collaborative creation of something amongst friends. And there’s no money involved, no plans to publish or produce what we create. It’s all just for fun.”


One last thing to note about the GenCon crowd: They can be very, very funny in a self-aware way about whatever weird stuff they’re into, and the geek tag that comes along with the gamer’s life. Mostly, this is expressed through t-shirts. My friends and I have started an unofficial best t-shirt competition, and here are this year’s winners:


Bronze Medal
If I wanted your opinion, I’d read your entrails.


Silver Medal
Our dice go to 21…


Gold Medal
Yes, I play Dungeons and Dragons,
Yes, I’ve kissed a girl,
And yes, I could kick your ass…

Glenn McDonald writes about popular culture from his home in lovely Chapel Hill, NC. His humor essays have been described as "grammatically consistent" and "remarkably frequent". He is editor of the Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me daily news quiz at NPR.org, and a film critic at the Raleigh News & Observer. He lives virtually at www.glenn-mcdonald.com.


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