Convention Report – Gen Con 50

Gen Con 50
By Martin Tideswell

As I sit here in the lobby of my hotel the day after the chaos has concluded, overlooking the forlorn-looking Gen Con 50 sign at The Claddagh Irish Pub, I can confirm I have a bad case of the post-Gen Con blues. A real bad case. In fact, approach with caution for the foreseeable… Yes, I am that guy you saw walking the convention center earlier, wistfully recalling what it was like just 24 hours earlier, swiping Visit Indy welcome cards and dog-eared event programmes like a battlefield scrounger.

Unsurprisingly, ‘the best four days in gaming’ has just posted a record attendance – four per cent up on 2016 and it’s ninth consecutive year of record turnstile attendances (207,979). This year’s 50th anniversary celebration was always going to be a monster with armour class 50 and 60,000 hit points – AKA unique attendees. And with around 500 exhibitors and approximately 19,000 ticketed events, it did not disappoint.

Gen Con is no longer simply a massive event which fills the Indianapolis Convention Center and several hotels, with restaurants and bars embracing their inner nerd in lovely, welcoming fashion. (Hat tip to the staff at the JW Marriott – resplendent in their Star Trek uniforms). Now, with the full expansion into Lucas Oil Stadium (home of NFL team the Indianapolis Colts), it is a convention which has genuinely conquered Downtown Indy.

On arrival we were greeted in my happy place (Georgia Street) with a huge sign reminding us that we were ‘Celebrating Gaming History’. Gen Con’s organisers had sensibly planned for the badge sell-out by creating more walk way space in the dealer hall, which meant that it honestly never felt too crowded (some achievement, that).

This year’s big noise was Paizo’s release of its Starfinder RPG – with demos galore. Suffice to say you couldn’t get near the pay stations at the Paizo booth for the first two days of the convention. I wasn’t there, however.

In a seminar room on the first night of the convention, DnD supremos Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford, along with celebrity DM Matt Mercer gave a state of the nation address on Dungeons and Dragons, the fifth edition phenomenon and what comes next which left me feeling that the granddaddy and mother of all RPGs – intrinsically linked, of course, with the birth and growth of Gen Con itself – is in safe, passionate hands. Bear in mind that I speak, of course, as a zealot.

Over on the field at the Lucas Oil Stadium, those good people at Gen Con staged a respectful and informative exhibition charting the history of the convention which included artifacts (yeah, I’m going to call them that) donated by the games luminaries and even a life-size mock up of the entrance to the horticultural hall where it all began in 1967.

The father of Gen Con, Gary Gygax himself, was front and centre – as you’d expect – and it was a genuinely humbling experience to see his legacy honoured in this way and I did wonder if the original dungeon master hadn’t orchestrated the subsequent solar eclipse to mark the historic occasion.

This year’s costume parade – witnessed by my gang in the blistering heat of the street – was brilliantly funny and engaging. Hats off to everyone who took part – especially the guy who was dressed as a giant pickle. Whatever floats your boat, I say… Cardhalla was its usual impressive self and a further $26,000 was raised for local charity partner Child Advocates – taking the total generated for charities by Gen Con in Indianapolis to more than a quarter of a million dollars.

For me this year’s Gen Con was genuinely special – because as well as bringing my family and a friend to Indy again, we were able to get a sense of the history and heritage of the gaming convention that frankly dwarfs all others. We played a little DnD (usual hit and miss experience with DMs – two great, one not so great…), tried the Artemis Starship Simulator, demoed the Dead of Winter boardgame, bought so much stuff that our suitcase definitely exceeds the American Airlines luggage weight allowance, and met up with a group of firm friends from Minneapolis who we’ve bonded with over Cthulhu games since 2012. Hell I’d pay to come to Gen Con just to see those guys.

I have no regrets. We did everything we wanted to do. We left everything on the field, so to speak. Or perhaps on the gaming table. But I’m still really sad it’s over. So did it live up to expectations? Here’s the thing: Gen Con is a beast – a behemoth: an unpredictable, chaotic, hit point-sapping creature that will chew you up if you’re not smart and prepared.

There is definitely a problem with Downtown accommodation – too many people and not enough rooms. Thus the hotel lottery remains and the moans and groans on various forums will doubtless persist. But let’s be fair. I think Gen Con’s organisers do a remarkable job under difficult circumstances and, no matter what anyone says, they do listen. Proof of this is the additional space in the dealer hall this year and the fact that Will Call for your badges is now a well-oiled machine. Imagine that!

Let’s also not overlook the fact that Indy, which benefits from the Gen Con experience to the tune of $73 million each year, genuinely embraces us gamers. Gen Con will never please everyone. But this UK gamer will be back because there is simply nothing else like this convention anywhere on Earth.

I feel at home here. Welcomed and with my kind of people. As do my family and first-time attendee friend. (She’s returning too…) If you’ve never been, take some advice from one who knows: Gen Con is where it’s at. It always was and always will be. Go there. Just do it. You won’t regret it.

Thank you, Indy. See you again real soon.

*Martin Tideswell is a journalist from Stoke-on-Trent, England, who was attending Gen Con for the fourth time with his wife, daughters and a family friend. He has played DnD since 1983 and was, until recently, the Regional Co-ordinator for the DnD Adventurers League (Europe). Martin won the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con during his first visit to the States in 2012 and won the Red Steel tournament at Gen Con UK back in the day. He is a published author for Raging Swan Press, contributing source materials for the Pathfinder RPG system. He runs DnD, Cthulhu and other game systems for his home play group every weekend.

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