It was a humid August night in downtown Milwaukee. I was alone on a street, in a city I’d never been to before. Well, as alone as I could be considering there were nearly twenty-thousand people milling about. I was there for business—my first business trip! (If you don’t count that time I was a waitress and my ex-boss and I drank too much and wandered onto a Bainbridge Island ferry.) I had just started a new job and was sent to this strange place to demo a product I barely understood myself. A trading card game? Since when do trading cards attack each other?
My co-workers were at a bar called the Safe House. At least, I hoped it was a bar. I stopped making assumptions about my environment after about hour one in the convention center. Apparently, to get into the Safe House, you need a password, but I was more focused on finding the place first. So I did what anyone (who didn’t have an iPhone because they hadn’t been invented yet) would do in this situation—find a nice stranger to ask. Preferably nice strangers who look like they might frequent a bar that requires a password. I spotted a couple walking toward me who fit the bill.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you know where the Safe House is?”
The couple didn’t respond, which made me think this was part of the Safe House schtick. The first rule of the Safe House is to make people feel like jackasses when they ask about the Safe House. Makes sense considering its theme, even sort of cute if I weren’t standing here alone and thirsty.
“Excuse me,” I repeated. “I’m looking for a bar called the Safe House. Do you know where it is?”
Nothing. It’s like I didn’t even exist, the way they looked right past me. I was eight inches from them. Close enough to see the rim of her contacts. The depth of his pores. Man, I hoped they had some cold cream back at the hotel, because that makeup was going to be a bitch to take off.
“Hello?” I jumped up and down in case their visual cortexes required the same stimulation as my dad’s beloved automated snowman that sings “Burning Love” every time it senses movement. The mailman almost sued us because of that thing!
Still nothing. Come on! Sure, I could have found someone else to ask–people were walking by in a steady stream–but I felt invested in this challenge now. Why won’t they uncross their arms and answer me?
That was weird too. That pose. They were both standing stock still in the same position with their arms crossed over their chests like they were standing upright in a coffin. Creepy …
I was alone(ish) in a strange(ish) city asking about a safe house. My mom would kill me.
Alas, I received help, but not from those two. Help came in the form of two hysterically laughing co-workers I recognized from R&D. (Why is R&D always laughing at me?)
“You can’t see them,” Paul, my co-worker explained (if you can call that explaining). “They’re invisible.”
Great. The entire world has drunk the Kool-Aid. Or least everyone within five miles of downtown Milwaukee.
“What are you talking about? They’re right there,” I said, pointing to their stony faces.
“They’re obfuscating,” said Lane, my other co-worker, as he guided me across the street by my elbow. “It’s part of a game.”
“A game?” I asked. What was up with these people and their games? Don’t people play Boggle and Life or Crazy 8’s anymore?
“What kind of stupid game requires you to stand on street corners ignoring people who are clearly in distress?” I asked.
“A LARP,” replied first co-worker, all blasé, as if he was telling me what’s on the hotel’s breakfast buffet.
Obfuscating? LARP? I scored OK on the English part of my SATs, but I don’t remember these definitions. Why do you need a visible sign to prove you’re invisible? What had I gotten myself into?
If I were half as savvy as I am today (yes, you become savvy after over a decade working at a gaming company), I would have known what they were doing and I never would have asked them for directions. I’ve even been known to obfuscate. I do it in meetings and in the gym when my trainer tells me to hold plank position for three minutes. I even do it sometimes at Barney’s when the salespeople get too pushy. (Note that the sign for obfuscating is remarkably similar to the sign for “teddy bear” in baby sign language.)
I did find my way to the Safe House that night. And many more nights after that. (And I always found out the password beforehand, thus sparing me the humiliation of the Chicken Dance on closed circuit television.)
That was the first of many Gen Cons. It used to feel somewhat voyeuristic being there. Me in my Wizards polo shirt and designer jeans thinking I didn’t really belong. No one gave me any notice unless I was handing out free samples, but I was certainly paying attention to them. Sure I worked for a game company, but that didn’t make me a gamer. I haven’t worn fairy wings since 1995 when I dressed up for Halloween as a Washington State Ferry. (Get it?)
For four days, these people existed in a different world. A world where swords, Stormtroopers, and synthetic hair ruled. The more different they were, the more they fit in. It was like bizarro high school. I found myself shying away from conversations because I had no idea what these people were talking about. Can’t we talk about the upcoming Fall television line up? Or pets? Or grilled pizza recipes? I have tons of those!
What I really wanted to know was why wasn’t everyone aware of this strange, enchanting world that existed in middle America? Shouldn’t Diane Sawyer be here? Or at least Triumph the Insult Dog?
Gen Con can be counted on for a few staples—lack of sleep, blisters, eating my body weight in french fries. (It’s hard to be a vegetarian in Indianapolis!) This year was different. Or maybe just I was. For the first time I didn’t feel like just a Wizards of the Coast employee in a scratchy polo shirt. I felt like … dare I say it? A gamer.
I noticed it first outside the Dwarven Forge booth. I was walking by with my pockets full of shiny new dice for Tabitha when I noticed their classic dungeon sets.
“Oh wow!” I said, dragging my boss into the booth. “Wouldn’t you love playing in there?”
“I guess,” she laughed.
“Why is that funny?” I asked.
“Because it’s you talking about miniature terrain.”
It’s true. Since when did I get excited about tiny trap doors and a raisable portcullis?
Then there was the heated debate I overheard in the food court about what to call a large group of nerds. One camp was saying “party,” the other was saying “stench.” I walked over to their table.
“They’re called a school.”
We’ve spent a lot of time discussing this at the office.
And, oh yeah, there was a moderately, scary cool elevator ride with a school of nerds who saw my badge and started barraging me with demands.
“You're the Player-in-Chief, aren’t you?” one of them sneered, standing dangerously close to the emergency stop button.
I am! (But jeez. Can’t anyone be happy magic missile is magic again? Rest assured, your suggestions are on their way to R&D.)
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about gamers and D&D (an there’s a reason for that but I’ll save it for another time) and trying to figure out what it is about this game that resonates with so many people. There’s a reason that D&D has remained relevant in pop culture. It’s still the go-to joke when trying to illustrate what a nerd a TV character is. You don’t need to own any funny-shaped dice to know what a Dungeon Master is.
If you were there, I’m sure you have quite the highlight reel yourself. If you weren’t there, you probably read about it on Facebook or someone’s blog. And if you have no idea what Gen Con is, then your Google search for “Confessions” and/or “Wizard” has led you very far astray. Here’s a smattering of my favorite things. Eat your heart out, Oprah.
Winners, Losers, and Drawers
You know that feeling of wanting to punch someone in the stomach the second you meet them? Then you know exactly how cartoonist Jared Von Hindman felt just after we were introduced. To be fair, the punch landed about six minutes into our encounter, but we were long lost nemeses at that point.
I knew of him of course, but hadn’t had the strange pleasure of meeting him in person.
“So I hear you’re writing for the D&D site, too,” I said.
“Yes,” he answered. “Light, fluffy lifestyle pieces.”
“Oh. How … interesting. Did you know I’m a cartoonist?”
Over the course of the evening, we flipped between feeling like we might be soulmates to, well … punching each other in the stomach. We were like the Real Housewives of the Nentir Vale. If past lives do exist, I’m sure Jared and I were brother and sister. Nemeses indeed. I’m watching you, Jared.
Leveling With Kids
When I was little, I thought my dad was the coolest. He used to take me to get new sneakers and always managed to pick up a pair for himself, too. I wouldn’t pull the trigger on selecting mine until I saw the ones he gravitated to. Then I’d tell the sales clerk that those coincidentally were the exact ones I wanted. Imagine that! It was so cool to walk out of Foot Locker with the same kicks on as my dad. Blue Nikes with the white swoosh. White Adidas with the red stripes. Once I even got golf cleats, which really made my mom mad.
“How are these practical for a six-year-old girl?” she asked.
That wasn’t Dad’s fault. I refused to leave the store without them.
If there’s one thing I adore about Gen Con, it’s seeing a father bestowing his love of all things geek on his offspring. Kids are dressed up as Link and Zelda without a clue as to who they are. Fathers and sons pose in front of the giant beholder statues. Dads and daughters bond over bedazzling foam swords.
I heard a man force his son to get in line for a Larry Elmore signed poster. When the kid, who clearly had better places to be, bellowed, “Why, daddy, why?” his dad simply responded with, “Trust me. Just … trust me.”
I got assigned a task at Gen Con that seemed fun in theory. (No, not “handling” Ed Greenwood. I get assigned that task every year and it’s always “fun.”)
My task was this: Armed with a camera crew (how Entertainment Tonight!) and the new Dungeons & DragonsFantasy Roleplaying Game packaged with the original, iconic Larry Elmore art, I was charged with walking around the show floor in search of stories from glory days of yore. I wanted to know things like, where did you first discover this mystical red box? Who was your first character? What memories does looking at this new, old box bring back? Who did you play with?
At first I thought, sure, I can do that. It’s just walking around talking to people, and I do love those stories about how people were first introduced to D&D. But then I went into a blind panic. Suddenly walking around the show floor with a wireless mic and a camera crew (this was their first Gen Con and they were a little … well … shell shocked) begging people to talk to me seemed a little too 2nd grade. I started worrying: I’m going to look like a big, old doofus in an itchy polyester polo shirt. I won’t know what they’re talking about! They’ll kick me to the curb in favor of real draws like Serra Angels and Time Lords and, lucky me, we’ll get it all on camera! (To be fair, I was distracted by the Serra Angels and Time Lords. Costumes were on fire this year.)
But guess what? I didn’t need to channel 2nd-grade Shelly. Getting people to wax nostalgic proved easy. I’d just look for people to take notice of what I was carrying and watch them respond with that same goofy grin and glossy-eyed look I get when I walk into the Nordstrom shoe department.
“There it is!”
“I remember that!”
“Those were some of the best games ever.”
People were more than happy to share their stories. Places, people, characters, rituals—it all came flooding back. One woman told about how her first rogue went off the rails and stabbed another party member in the back. That guy ended up becoming her husband. Hmm … maybe there’s more to that story. I talked to two guys who met playing the D&D Basic Game and were at Gen Con celebrating their annual Man-cation. Another guy shared how his group would nestle between the splintered floor and exposed insulation of the attic crawl space, with candles, to play their weekly game. They were more than eager to talk to me, on camera and off, about their early days with D&D. And here they all were, nearly three decades later.
Never Split the Party
Never. Keep them safely together in a suite at the Omni.
Remember the contest we ran a couple months ago asking for stories about old adventuring groups that split up for various reasons and the winning party would be reunited at Gen Con? I love essay contests in theory, but I hate the judging part. (Judging reality stars and red carpet fashion choices are one thing—from-the-heart reminiscing is another.)
The truth is, I’m a sucker for a sad story. And a funny story. Even just a well-written story. The judges went back and forth between several top contenders before deciding on the story about five guys who came together because of D&D and subsequently shared some of their best childhood-and-beyond memories because of it.
At dinner with the Wizards crew, they shared how Ben’s Uncle Willy introduced a group of nine-year-old boys to a game they would spend hours playing on his parents’ front porch. They were resigned to play on the front porch because Ben’s parents wouldn’t let the boys inside. Not even to use the bathroom. They had to run back to their respective homes to do that. Sometimes Ben would move the living room television up to the window so they could watch Friday the 13th while they played, but mostly it was just their imaginations, the characters they invented (and can still recall with the detail skills of an insurance claim adjuster), and the rules they sometimes went by, sometimes made up.
I know what you’re thinking. That’s my group! And it may be true. I think that what we liked about these guys was that their story encapsulated so well what we know to be true. Lots of friendships were developed because of D&D and while maintained, lots of groups were broken up because of college, family, jobs. Life happens. At least for 361 days of the year it does.
I wish my early memories of D&D didn’t involve making fun of the boys who played it. I didn’t have a gaming group then, but I do now. Better late than never, right?
“Friends come and go,” one of the guys I interviewed said. “But your gaming group is forever.”
“Yep,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
About the Author
Contrary to the visual evidence, Shelly Mazzanoble is not a dragon slayer. She was merely protecting it.