A Brit’s First Experience at Gen Con

Martin Tideswell, a 40-year-old newspaper journalist from England, was making his first trip to the States when he attended Gen Con Indy…

The sky above Indianapolis was a striking blue when I began my journey home and as my plane reached the wispy, candy floss clouds I began to reflect on my first Gen Con and, indeed, my first trip to the States.

As I arrived at immigration a stern-looking fellow who looked kind of like Poncherello out of CHiPs! asked me whether my visit to the U.S. was for business or pleasure.
“Pleasure,” said I.
“And what’s your pleasure?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu,” I replied, without blinking.
“Oh,” said Poncherello.
Round one to me, then.

Nothing really could have prepared me for America. To sum up: The Con exceeded all my expectations and the States was all I had hoped for. I got to drink strawberry milkshakes and eat burgers in a diner; I got to see an American football stadium and watch a game in a bar with the locals; I also met lots of really nice, decent, talkative people who made my visit all the more enjoyable. All I can say is: If Indianapolis is a relatively small, mid-western city, then heaven only knows what the really big ones are like.

In England we have streets. Tiny things with shoebox houses and roads that only fit three cars side-by-side. Who knew that blocks were so big? That roads were so wide? And that steam really does hiss from manhole covers?

It was a sheer fluke that I happened to be in Indy when every single biker in the U.S. converged on the place in honour of the Moto GP. Even I, generally disinterested in guy stuff, was mightily impressed by the sea of chrome, leather and denim which swamped the circle monument and the accompanying roar of the engines. It turns out that America doesn’t do things by halves and there is something peculiarly reassuring about that.

I arrived in Indy three days before Gen Con officially started – plenty of time, I reasoned, to get over the jet-lag and get my bearings. I never tired of hearing the accents. Of having people drop the letter ‘i’ in my name. Indeed, I was more than happy to be Mart’n for a week. Neither did I tire of the happy hellos, the ‘have a nice days’ and the ‘you’re most welcomes’ from everyone at the Con and in the hotels and the shops, pubs and restaurants I frequented. Trust me, it ain’t like that in England. Especially down South.

I spent my downtime trying to recce the Convention Center and the associated hotels where I would be RPGing. On Tuesday, a full two days before the Con officially opened, I was wandering around the Convention Center – randomly gawking at anything which said Dungeons & Dragons or Wizards of the Coast and taking pictures like a man possessed. I marveled at the hive of activity and the sheer size of the venues.

Back home I have attended 12 conventions – from the now defunct Gen Con UK to UKGamesExpo, but they are small-scale affairs compared to what I have just witnessed. You could fit them in the trade hall at Indy and still have room for a Democrat rally.

I was happy with my work. I blagged a copy of the event programme and decided I was ready to sample some culture with my free day. Thus I treated myself to a tour of the Lucas Oil Stadium and, in doing so, adopted the Colts as my team from here on in. Come good or bad.

Sleep evaded me. I tossed and turned. My body was completely out of whack and I was waking at 5am daily which, as it turned out, is not ideal preparation for a four-day convention. But nothing could dim my enthusiasm and I persuaded Aaron, boss man of this website and my roomie for the Con, to set the alarm for stupid-o’clock in order that we could collect our Press Passes early enough to qualify to get into the trade hall an hour before the official opening at 10am. I felt like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I had the golden ticket and an hour to take pictures, buy stuff and geek around before the mayhem began.

That hour was priceless. I bought more miniatures than you could shake a stick at. I bought t-shirts, games, dice, books and more. I re-acquainted myself with Dragonlance author Margaret Weis, whom I had met many years earlier at a convention in England, and thanked her for the character of Raistlin Majere. Again. I had my picture taken with the huge statues of D&D legend Drizzt Do’Urden and his pet kitty and the the Queen of the Demonweb pits herself – the mighty Llolth. Then I carried my spoils around all day like a lunatic – refusing to be parted from them while gaming: Like a kid on Christmas Day not quite knowing what to play with or look at next.

I played in the D&D Championships with a fella called Rob from Dallas and his son and daughter and another guy called Mike who said he worked for Fox News. Well, Newsflash: Poor old Mike’s character died about 10 minutes into the brutal first round of the tournament and he had to watch the rest of us play for the best part of four hours. I enjoyed it, yes. But I wouldn’t swap the false environment of timed encounters in the D&D Championship for my home-brew campaigns where characters and roleplay comes first. And clearly bringing your pals along puts you at a distinct advantage over those who have only just shaken hands. In fact, I enjoyed my two Living Forgotten Realms adventures better – although one of the DMs was clearly greener than the pickled gherkin which was served up with my evening meal. Still, my character Vassos advanced to seventh level and gained a new magic item so I can’t complain.

I must admit I thoroughly revelled in the change of pace that was Outbreak: Undead – a zombie apocalypse RPG which I played until midnight. I deliberately chose the soldier character cos I knew I’d get to shoot stuff up. I mean, who wants a lawyer or an artist when the world is ending, for goodness sake?

But my favourite bit of the Con? The Cthulhu Masters tournament run by Novus Ordo Seclorum. A three-round, pure role playing experience run by some of the finest GMs I have had the pleasure of playing with in 29 years. Dice rolls were, as they should be, occasional game mechanics and not the be-all and end-all. There were props, flashing lights, sirens and an atmosphere of creeping apprehension and confusion which pervaded the room and infected the players just like the master of R’lyeh would have wanted. To my surprise I progressed through round one and then the semi-final, throwing my own carefully-laid plans into disarray.

I guess block-booking games in every slot isn’t a smart move, after all. The day before the final I was struck down with what Aaron tells me is commonly known as ‘Con Crud’ – a feeling of utter, debilitating sickness and tiredness. Mine was entirely self-inflicted. Too little sleep, too little food and the wrong kind of chow when I did eat resulted in stomach cramps, sweats and something akin to nervous exhaustion. I bailed on a late night game and instead chose to have a bath, a proper meal and a decent night’s sleep.

By the following morning I felt much, much better. Not 100 percent, you understand, but near as damn it and I was ready for a momentous couple of hours with some really good RPGers.

I made sure someone took a picture for posterity. I had made the final of the Cthulhu Masters – without doubt the blue ribbon RPG tournament. Tough doesn’t cover it. It was a feeling akin to when I made the final of what used to be called the D&D Open Championship back in the UK many moons ago. Only this was better. These were proper roleplayers, top GMs and we were at the premier gaming convention in the world. Then I went and won it.

Don’t ask me how but I did. And no, I didn’t vote for myself cos I wasn’t allowed. The other players and the three GMs voted for me and Joe, who had run all three rounds for me, said some very nice things which I won’t forget. There were lots of hand shakes and I may have shrieked like a girl so, if you were present, please forgive me as I was obviously still in character.

It was a very special moment and the perfect end to my first Gen Con Indy. I was taking home a trophy which had never before left the U.S. and some wonderful ideas to share with my own gaming group. I wandered around the trade hall for the final two hours of the Con in a daze, carrying my ‘brain case’ trophy like a badge of honour.

When I arrived at customs at Indianapolis airport I wondered how I would explain the large, heavy rubber-plastic brain I was carrying in my hand luggage to the nice men with guns. Sure enough, when my backpack went through the scanner one of them said:

“Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to step this way. You have something organic in your luggage. What is it?”
“It’s my trophy for winning the Cthulhu Masters tournament at Gen Con,” I replied, innocently.
The customs man carefully unpacked my rucksack and slowly lifted out the brain case. “Joe, come look at this!” he said, motioning to his buddy.
He then turned to me and said: “Dude, that is awesome!”
“I know,” I smiled.

Just like my first Gen Con.

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