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Gen Con has a long and storied history, dating back almost fifty years and running across two states—and during most of that time, Dungeons & Dragons has been central to the convention.
Origins of Gen Con: 1967-1977
Fans of D&D might be surprised to learn that Gen Con predated the first FRPG by almost a decade. It began with what’s now called Gen Con 0 (1967), a casual gathering of about a dozen gamers at Gary Gygax’s house. There were three card tables on the porch; some miniatures gaming ran in the basement.
The next year, Gen Con I (1968) officially got the ball rolling under the auspices of the International Federation of Wargaming (IFW); about a hundred gamers met at the Horticulture Hall in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Miniatures battles and naval wargames dominated the con, as they’d continue to do so for several years thereafter.
Meanwhile, Dungeons & Dragons (1974) was slowly coalescing, and Gen Con was crucial to its development. Gygax was initially inspired by a medieval miniatures game called “Siege of Bodenberg” (1967) that he saw at Gen Con I. He then met Don Lowry at Gen Con III (1970), which led to the publication of Chainmail (1971), the immediate ancestor of D&D. A prototype Dungeons & Dragons game finally appeared at Gen Con VI (1973); the enthusiasm over it led Gygax and friend Don Kaye to form a company to publish the game: TSR.
The three-book boxed Dungeons & Dragons set was published early in 1974; by the time that Gen VII (1974) rolled around, Gygax had been marketing it for several months. The convention had grown since its origins in the ‘60s, and now was home to 350 or so gamers. Some found D&D weird, but others enthusiastically took to the new game. After the con, many brought it back to their own communities, which was an important step in the initial diaspora of the game.
Just two years later, the world had clearly changed, because TSR took control of the convention starting with Gen Con IX (1976). They kept the con at its Lake Geneva home through Gen Con X (1977), after which they moved it out into the wider world of Wisconsin, to accommodate crowds that were now topping 2,000 attendees.
The Early Tournaments: 1975-1981
Gen Con wasn’t just crucial for the creation and the distribution of D&D; it also helped to foster the culture of the game through a series of tournaments.
Tournaments were a pillar of the D&D experience as far back as Origins I (1975) and Origins II (1976)—where Gary Gygax ran the adventures that would later become S1 The Tomb of Horrors (1978) and S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980). However, it was Gen Con that became the home of D&D’s biggest tournament, the D&D Open.
Rob Kuntz ran his “Sunken City” adventure for Gen Con VIII (1975), but Bob Blake’s event for Gen Con IX (1976) is usually considered the start of the modern D&D tournament because it featured small groups running through multiple rounds of play and scoring points for killing foes and solving problems alike.
Another such event took place in 1977, but the next year really showed the power of the convention tournaments. In 1978, TSR ran a series of giant-themed adventures at Origins IV (1978) and then a series of Underdark adventures at Gen Con XI (1978), and immediately afterward published them as six of their first seven adventures: the legendary “G” series (1978) and “D” series (1978).
TSR continued to produce tournaments for a couple of years thereafter. The most notable was possibly the Gen Con XIII (1980) tournament: TSR gave five of their designers the task of creating a new linked tournament. Together, David “Zeb” Cook, Harold Johnson, Tom Moldvay, Allen Hammack, and Lawrence Schick produced the “A” series (1980), which also went on to become the classic adventure modules.
Meanwhile, TSR was expanding beyond the D&D Open. The invitational AD&D Masters Tournament, for the most hardcore players, began at Winter Fantasy 3 (1979), but reappeared at Gen Con XII (1979). The average D&D player was eventually able to see this ironman tournament when Gen Con XII’s “Doomkeep”, was published in Dragon #34 (February 1980).
Preparing those tournaments required tremendous work, so TSR may have been happy to hand the responsibility off to Frank Mentzer’s newly formed RPGA, who began running tourneys of their own at Gen Con XIV (1981). The RPGA adventures may not have been as high profile as those that TSR first created, but some were published as the “R” series (1982) and the “RPGA” series (1983). Years later, a few reappeared as official TSR products: I11 Needle (1987) and I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).
Across Wisconsin: 1978-1996
Following Gen Con X (1977), the convention moved to two different venues across the state. It was hosted at the University of Wisconsin Parkside from 1978-1984, then at MECCA—the major convention center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—from 1985-1996 (and beyond). The con’s attendance slowly grew, as it transformed from a regional convention to a major national convention. About 2,000 attendees for Gen Con XI (1978) became more than 5,000 for Gen Con 20 (1987) and about 23,000 for Gen Con ’96.
These years also saw the advent of a new tradition: the publication of major new releases for Gen Con. When TSR released their “D” series of adventures for Gen Con XI (1978), it was a byproduct of the tournament being run at that convention, but in the years to come a number of publishers would purposefully target their biggest releases for the world’s biggest roleplaying convention. The AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (1979), The World of Greyhawk Fantasy World Setting (1980), T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985), and Al-Qadim: Land of Fate (1992) were just a few of the major books published for Gen Con.
TSR’s most unique rollout ever might have occurred at Gen Con 17 (1984). The first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight (1984), was not due out until November, but authors Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis wanted to provide it with some attention at the con, so they decided to run a “Dragonlance Reader’s Theater”—where TSR employees and friends dramatized the book for an audience. The Reader’s Theatre was quite successful and would continue running through 1992.
This was just one of many cultural events that enriched the convention experience. At Gen Con XVI (1983), master miniatures maker Duke Seifried and three friends performed filk songs as “Uncle Duke & the Dragons”; meanwhile, publisher Chaosium began running their infamous Cthulhu for President rallies—as immortalized in their own Cthulhu for President supplements (1992, 1996, 2004).
However, the biggest event for Gen Con during its TSR years might have been its combination with the Origins Game Fair for two huge conventions: Gen Con ’88 / Origins and Gen Con ’92 / Origins—which was also Gen Con’s 25th anniversary.
Wizards Takes Over: 1997-2001
The 1997 Gen Con Game Fair—the thirtieth anniversary of the Lake Geneva convention—almost didn’t happen. Owner TSR stopped publishing books in January of the year; meanwhile, no money was being budged for Gen Con. When Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR in April 1997, the year’s biggest gaming convention was already drawing perilously close.
Wizards managed to pull the convention off, and the 1997 Gen Con Game Fair ended up being one of the industry’s biggest parties ever, as D&D was welcomed back under new ownership. The Violent Femmes filled the streets for a concert in Milwaukee, and the roleplaying industry was reborn.
Wizards of the Coast only managed Gen Con for five years, but during that time they used it to spotlight D&D more than ever before. At the 1999 Gen Con Game Fair, they announced the upcoming release of D&D third edition, and then at the 2000 Gen Con Game Fair, they published this major new release.
TSR regularly published big products at Gen Con, but they never did a full-blown release of D&D at the convention, so this was a first—perhaps only comparable to the Dungeon Masters Guide release of 1979. Wizards not only released the Player's Handbook for D&D third edition, but the d20 license also went live; the first two third-party d20 books appeared simultaneously: Atlas Games’ Three Days to Live (2000) and Green Ronin’s Death in Freeport (2000).
For four days in 2000, Wizards’ core rulebook and those two d20 adventures were the focus of the entire industry.
Peter Takes Over: 2002-Present
In early 2002, Wizards of the Coast sold Gen Con to ex-President Peter Adkison. Though he kept Gen Con in Wisconsin in 2002, the next year he moved it out of its home state for the first time ever; the convention’s new home in Indianapolis offered more room for expansion, a promise that has since been fulfilled. Though attendance numbers hovered around 25,000 for several years, Gen Con grew dramatically in the ‘10s: 30,000 gamers attended Gen Con Indy 2010, over 40,000 were at Gen Con Indy 2012, and a reported 49,000 visited Gen Con Indy 2013.
Though Wizards no longer owns Gen Con, they’ve continued to make it the heart of their D&D presence. They announced D&D 4e at Gen Con Indy 2007 while simultaneously revealing it online, and then published the new edition of the game at Gen Con Indy 2008. Campaign setting publications like Forgotten Realms (2008), Dark Sun (2010), and Neverwinter (2011) were their major Gen Con releases in the years that followed.
In 2013, Gale Force Nine sold Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, a quickstart adventure that gave the public its first look at the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. And this year, at Gen Con Indy 2014, Wizards is continuing its long tradition of showcasing their most anticipated books and products in Indianapolis. The D&D Starter Set released as of July 15, while the new Player’s Handbook (2014), the core book for Dungeons & Dragons, reaches Wizards Play Network retailers August 8—just before convention days.
It’s been forty years now that Gen Con and Dungeons & Dragons have been closely linked, and that’s a connection that seems destined to continue into the future.
Author’s Note: 40 Years of Gen Con (2007), by Robin D. Laws, and Playing at the World (2012), by Jon Peterson, both provided details for this article. Attendance numbers come from cited numbers collected on the “Gen Con” Wikipedia page; they may not be 100% comparable to each other due to numbers being counted in different ways at different times.
For Gen Con 2014, you can find more information here.