Thursday, June 23, 2011

GenCon's Past: My First Gencon (1992)

I first went to GenCon in 1992, which apparently was a banner year because they broke some sort of attendance record according to it’s Wikipeida entry.

I had just finished high school and it was the summer before going off to collage. I went with one of my best friends, Jay. This would be his 20th consecutive gencon as well, but he missed last year to attend a wedding in London. Big mistake Jay!

As any long time GenCon veteran should know, in 1992 the convention was in Milwaukee and not Indianapolis (a topic for another blog). It was held at the Milwaukee Exposition & Convention Center & Arena, or also know as MECCA, which is an awesome acronym. It never got old telling people I would be going on a pilgrimage to Mecca in the summer.

One the most predominate, and sad, memories of my first year, was the massive amount of homeless people I encountered. It was very staggering. I’m unaware of the economic conditions of Milwaukee in 1992, but nearly every bench or public resting area had someone sleeping on it. It was just unnerving, and thus I avoided venturing around the downtown area and stuck to the convention buildings. I missed out on some cool places that I would not discover until later GenCons (can you say Safe House!)

The logistics of those first few GenCons would be very different than future conventions. Not only would more friends join me, but how we treated the convention changed. First, our hotel was not actually in downtown Milwaukee. It was in metro suburb about 15-20 minutes away. This was not uncommon and lack of good hotel space as a major reason the convention moved to Indy some years later. Also a major difference in future years, would be the amount of events that we would attempt to play (or run). In those early years we would literally plan an event for every slot of the convention, which wold start at 8am and end around 10pm or midnight. So, we would wake up about 7am, take a quick shower, drive downtown (not easy on the Thur/Fri days), park the car, game for 12 hours straight, and then drive back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep. Then do it again the next day. That was hardcore gaming. The idea of doing that today just makes me cringe. I’m too old for that shit as they say.

It’s very difficult to remember many of the events I played in. We played several sessions of D&D as 2nd edition had only been released 3 years prior. I would consistently be disappointed in D&D events convention after convention. The combination of rules lawyers, very young players, and often inexperienced GMs would plague these events. After a few years, I would completely cease signing up for D&D events.

I can say the complete opposite of Call of Cthulhu. We played several of these events, and they nearly all a blast. Call of Cthulhu is probably the game best suit for conventions. The very nature of the game play works well for one shots, and the game masters are often the most enthusiastic, experienced, and well prepared.

One event I do remember was a Call of Cthulhu game in which we all played characters from Scooby Doo. I believe I was Daphne and Jay was Fred. It was a riot. I recall the character playing Velma climbing down a well (by herself) in which we heard strange noises coming from. Needless to say, we didn’t see Velma again. I mean, climbing down creepy wells by yourself in Call of Cthulhu? That’s Cthulhu investigating 101.

The Convention Center
The biggest thing I miss about Milwaukee is Mecca. The convention was held for the most part in two buildings: a main convention hall and adjoining arena. It’s the latter I miss the most. The convention center was your basic convention building and would later be ripped down and replaced with a new and much nicer building. The arena, or as it was called then Mecca arena, is stilling standing today, but is now called U.S. Cellular Arena.

Some of my fondest gaming memories of Gencon took place in that awesome building. First, the building felt like a dungeon or stronghold, probably due to all the grey concrete (in contrasted to the painted walls of the convention center). The floor of the arena was section into rows of curtained off gaming areas. It was far more private and intimate compared to the open tables of Gencon now. It was also easier to hear the game master. But if you were lucky, your event was held below the arena in the catacombs! Ok, not real catacombs, but it sure felt like catacombs. Down below the arena there were also curtain off gaming areas, but they were in smaller sections and the noise level was even lower. It felt like I was gaming in a creepy basement, bust instead of 5 friends, I had 100s of friends. I don’t know if it was deliberate or not, but most of the horror events seemed to take place in the catacombs, and it only amplified the experience. God I miss that arena. Since Gencon has moved to Indy, I can’t say any event has matched some of the ones I played in the bowels of Mecca Arena.

The other reason I loved Mecca Arena was because the GenCon auction took place there. Today the auction is a shadow of itself, but before the days of ebay and craigslist, it was the greatest (and most fun) way to buy and sell used games. For years I would bring my old games to sell and use the proceeds to buy new ones. I would spend hours there watching all the rare and unusual games changes hands.

Long live Mecca, I mean... U.S. Cellular Arena.


  1. This past fall I had the opportunity to help my wife run a charity chair massage stand during Milwaukee Admirals home games at the old Mecca Arena (as you say, US Cellular, now).

    The first time we walked in, it was like being transported back. Noisy crowd of people, those grey concrete walls and floor... I probably spent the first half-hour talking about playing various Starwars, Skyrealms of Jorune, and Dungeons and Dragons games there over the years. I think I even played a game of something called Theatrix there once, but I totally forget the year.

    I just remember a guy running around trying to scrounge up players shouting, "VAMPIRES! PLAY AS VAMPIRES HERE!" as Vampire: the Masquerade was popular at the time and they thought it would be a draw for players. Of course, there were no vampires in the game at all. ;)

  2. LOL, I totally remember the people yelling VAMPIRES too. Thanks for reminding me.

  3. I am intrigued by your comment about the auction being a shadow of its former self. I went to a few Gen-Cons in Milwaukee, though I did not get into the auction until Indianapolis, so I have no knowledge of the old ways. Was it that it was bigger? In a more fun location? That it was the only place you could get valuable and obscure stuff since there was no conceptualization of Internet auctioneering yet?

  4. Yes to all your questions.

    I was at a better location, bigger, and also the internet sort of replaced the need to such auctions. Still, it's worth visiting, especially during the rare, expensive stuff.