Monday, March 25, 2024

Gary Con XVI: Where Dreams Came True


After putting it off and making excuses for so long, it was finally time to make my first ever pilgrimage to Lake Geneva and attend a Gary Con. The tragic loss of Jennell Jaquays and the 50th anniversary of D&d itself are what finally broke this camel's back. Further emphasizing the importance of these sorts of gatherings, the news of James M. Ward's sudden passing hit just days before the event. Rest in peace, Jim. I sorely wish I'd been able to make your acquaintance.

Since I was flying into Chicago, I took the opportunity to explore a little there first, and especially to savor the spectacle that is the world's largest video arcade, Galloping Ghost. There were plenty of other strange and unusual sights to take in, of course, and I particularly enjoyed the Wooly Mammoth antique and curiousity shop and Graveface, a truly unique record and cult movie shop with its own attached circus sideshow/occult/serial killer museum. So wonderfully weird, just the way I like it! With my stopover in Chicago at an end, I caught a ride with the inimitable Cheese Hasselberger to Lake Geneva, arriving well after midnight on...

Day One

So far, I'm in awe. Back in my hotel room now, and my head is still buzzing.

I met and conversed with the likes of Ed Greenwood, Erol Otus, Larry Elmore, Jeff Easley, Tim Kask, Darlene, Diesel LaForce, and Mike Pondsmith. I almost got my cleric's dumb ass melted by acid in a delightful B/X dungeon crawl run by Douglas Niles. I bought way too many books from grodog at the Black Blade booth.

Last, and perhaps most importantly, I got to experience the original Braunstein scenario with Dave Wesely. A staggering nineteen other players (including Ben Milton of the Questing Beast YouTube show) were utterly consumed by the amazing historical fantasy.

For those who don't know, Braunstein I is a freeform RPG pre-dating D&D that's set in a fictional Prussian city of the same name circa 1790. Every player is given a character with unique goals and victory conditions. These include university students, local nobility and merchants, traveling entertainers, French spies, and more. The roleplay element is almost 100% at the forefront, with dice being rolled only once during this evening's session to resolve a duel (that my character lost). I played the leader of the democratic student revolutionaries who also happened to be the Baron's spoiled son. I went to jail, got part of my ear chopped off, and ended up marrying a prominent banker's beautiful daughter (played by a very nice bald fellow). A thoroughly engrossing and educational ride.

To call Dave a master GM would be a colossal understatement. Never in my 3.5 or so decades of play have I beheld another on his level. Just a natural born storyteller who brought the time period to life and enabled us all to produce this crazy improvised soap opera with these complex relationship webs and dark secrets and such. The sheer craft and insight, the way every simple answer to a question led into a sly suggestion. The man's a wonder. It's humbling, really.

In fact, I think the reason I'm still giddy because I feel like I learned so much from him in so short a time that my brain has only started unpacking and processing it all. It would be like an amateur painter today getting to take a lesson with a Rembrandt or Picasso or something.

Bless Dave for still coming out at nearly 80 years of age and showing people like me firsthand how roleplaying began, years before any sort of proper roleplaying game as we would recognize it now was even on the market.

Can this really be just day one of four!?

Day Two

Snow in Lake Geneva! I was over the moon. It's been an unseasonably warm and dry winter in Seattle and I was worried I would have to wait until next year for the white stuff. This little dusting was perfect. Just substantial enough to add atmosphere without snarling up the roads.

After this miracle, a second: The late Jim Ward's good friend Harold "Wisconsin" Johnson, known for Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and others, stepped up to run his planned Metamorphosis Alpha game. Frankly, I can't think of a better tribute.

There were many more fateful meetings. Matt Finch and Suzy Moseby of Mythmere Games surprised me in the halls, as last I heard they wouldn't be able to make it. Turns out some badges became available at the last minute. Wonderful people always.

There was Harold Johnson as mentioned, of course.

Steve Sullivan, who told me about a Manos: Hands of Fate game he'll be releasing soon. This guy gets me. Now I know there's at least one other person into D&D and Manos memorabilia.

Mike Carr and I talked about how his air combat rules from Dawn Patrol/Fight in the Skies made it into D&D and how his innovation of persistent pilot avatars foreshadowed D&D's leveling system.

Chatted for a sec with Daniel from the Bandit's Keep YouTube channel chilling by the bar fireplace.

Jeff Grubb, who teased me a little for bringing some Marvel stuff for him to sign, as he's local and already knows me. "Why didn't you just ask me to lunch?" In all fairness, cover artist Jeff Butler was there, too, so I figured I'd kill two birds with one stone this way. I also got a sweet Lugosi Dracula portrait from Jeff B. His whole Universal monsters series is great.

Ran into Vince Vaugh, the movie actor, of all people. He's not a guest or anything. I guess he just came to play. Dude's hella tall, which I did not expect.

Allan Hammack was kind enough to listen to me recap my relatively recent first playthrough of Ghost Tower of Inverness. My thief almost made it, only to get blasted by the Soul Gem.

Dave "Zeb" Cook seemed like a nice guy. We didn't talk long, but I did get to point out that his shoe was untied. A hero's work is never done.

Merle "The Administrator" Rasmussen really rocked his Bond tuxedo. I have to appreciate his commitment to the bit. Looking forward to playing in his Top Secret game Sunday morning.

Pat Kilbane, also hella tall, was kind enough to sign my copy of the documentary he just put out, The Dreams in Gary's Basement.

The last major event of the day was a foray into the mother of all dungeons, Blackmoor Castle, as refereed by original Blackmoor player and current campaign head, Bob Meyer. He set us on a chaotic (yet successful!) quest to retrieve the Wizard of the Wood's missing apprentice and some magic well water from the orc, troll, and balrog-infested maze. What a ride! And what a challenge to map, I might add! Cartographic crises aside, the game was a lot of fun. In true Blackmoor tradition, we threw 2d6 for most everything and none of us knew our characters' stats. One interesting twist is that we were all told to pick one special skill or power, which could be anything we could imagine. I chose uncanny luck, another player picked marksmanship, a third brawling, and so on. One guy even tried to make the going easier by saying his character had a knack for making a torch out of anything. With the main raw material on hand being dead orcs, the bacon-scented "pork torch" was born. At the end of the session, we returned triumphant and Bob had a photographer come in and take a proper group portrait with a professional camera that we then all got free physical copies of. What a class act! You know that's going on the wall.

Well, I've rambled on enough. I need to get some rest because my next game starts bright and early tomorrow and it's not technically at Gary Con.

Day Three

Woke up to find the snow hanging in there. No new powder, but it was still nice and crisp with no trace of nasty slush in sight. Accordingly, I decided to take my time and hoof it the mile or so into downtown for my next scheduled game session: An 8:00 AM OD&D Castle Greyhawk delve helmed by gaming historian Paul Stormberg.

The snow crunched away under my heels as I passed by the St. Francis de Sales Catholic school with its white courtyard statue (Mary?) almost perfectly camouflaged against the landscape. Soon enough I crossed the road onto the foot path over the White River and from there two more blocks before reaching the little white house on Center St.

And I do mean little. Every Gygax biography mentions this building and its tight quarters, but until you're actually inside it, you may not realize what a scene it must have been to have a family of seven and Gary's wargaming pals packed in like sardines. Yolanda, who currently owns the place (it was a head shop of all things when she bought it nineteen years ago), was a very gracious host.

As for the adventure itself, we played through an original, never published scenario cooked up by Gary for his son Ernie in 1975. After navigating a baffling maze, we succeeded where Ernie's character, Erac, met his end. Kudos to the real MVP, Steve Wright (aka Rufus the fighter), who cracked the final and trickiest riddle that allowed us all to return triumphant. And to Paul, of course, who handled the sometimes challenging task of interpreting Gary's 49 year-old notes with grace.

Following a quick walk around the block to stretch my legs and view the quaint Horticultural Hall where the first Gen Con drew just under a hundred attendees in 1968, I endulged in a quick visit to Gary's old office space. Having there attempted to get some typing done on the same model of machine he used, I now find myself much more forgiving in regard to how those first booklets turned out!

After that, it was down the stairs for a proper game of Chainmail on the sand table. I was a first-timer, as were 80% of the other players, but the organizers did a fantastic job of keeping the game flowing. Law and Chaos clashed in The Battle of Brown Hills, a vintage Gygax-penned scenario. My Chaos forces took a decisive early lead by shrouding the battlefield in magical darkness that almost nobody but our orc and ogre troops could see through. Law soon struck back, though, casting magical light to illuminate the main hill and sending their armored knights cleaving through the orcish ranks. Alas, our four hour time slot still left the outcome too close to call, but fun was had by all. I think Gary would be proud to know we're still filling his old basement with cheers and boos and impassioned rules debates.

By the time everything wrapped up a little after 5:00, it had been ten hours since breakfast. After one more quick stop at the Gygax memorial tile down by the waterfront for the customary dice blessing, I met up with Matt and Suzy again to discuss gaming, publishing, and life in general for a couple hours over some surprisingly excellent tacos and pizza at House of Bogini. Seriously, if you're ever in town, check this place out.

So that was my day, in which I never set foot on the convention grounds proper and still had an unforgettable time. Three down, one to go.

Day Four

Up bright and entirely too early for my last 8:00 AM game of Gary Con 2024. One word of advice: Don't count on getting much sleep if you come out. I'm not even the partying type, but I was still so amped up from all the gaming, socializing, and general energy of the event that I could usually only manage four hours tops most night if I was lucky.

For my last game, I chose Merle Rasmussen's Top Secret. Top Secret was the first espionage RPG, inspired by all manner of spy fiction from Mission Impossible to Get Smart. Today's game was billed as a D&D crossover, since the agents had to go undercover as fantasy characters at a Renaissance fair in order to prevent a jewel heist. My character, for example, was dressed as a wizard with a "staff" that split into two steel-weighted fighting batons and a finger-mounted laser to serve as his "magic missile." I even had a prop provided for that last one.

The most fun aspect by far was that Merle built a Lego castle and had the rest of us each design our own sections of the fairground surrounding it. Thrown bits of cotton served as fog. Damage to the terrain was treated as real, so when Merle reached to move a helicopter and tipped it over, along with one of the other player's arial drones and a section of castle wall, it was justified as a mid-air collision, with the helicopter crash subsequently knocking over a section of wall and pinning one of the would-be jewel thieves under it.

In the end, the jewels were secured and we all got congratulated on our teamwork. A brilliant end to a brilliant weekend of games.

After that, I made one last pass through the vendor hall, bought one last thing off the Black Blade folks (a Secrets of Blackmoor DVD), and finally got a chance to chat with Heidi Gygax Garland and her husband Erik. Like Luke, she's embraced the "family business" and publishes adventures under the Gaxland label. She's also busy organizing her own local event, EGG Con, for the coming summer. I wish her luck. Before I left, she handed me a card containing a family recipe for "Gary's birthday apple pie." It sounds pretty dang good.

With that, I said farewell to Lake Geneva and made off Chicago way. After a stop at the legendary Mars Cheese Castle in Kenosha for the mandatory Wisconsin curds, I was airborne.

Back home in Seattle and unpacking now, I can honestly say that my first Gary Con was better even than I'd dreamed. The whole community was so very kind, the games top-notch, and the chance to experience it in the place of D&D's birth was the icing on the cake. I got to personally thank so many of my favorite creators and even get to know a few of them a little. If you're on the fence like I was for so many years, I can only think back to Jennell and Jim's portraits sitting across from each other at the base of the Wall of Remembrance and encourage you to take the plunge sooner than later.

Now, if you're excuse me, I'm off to My Own Bed Con. Attendance is small, but it's a real sleeper hit.


  1. This was a wonderful article, quite a whirlwind of tabletop excitement.

    1. It was everything I'd hoped and then some. Friendly, educational, and non-stop fun.