I have a long relationship with Gen Con, stretching back into the previous century. That relationship is tied very closely to the progress of my career, from fan, to freelancer, to Paizo developer. Like many good stories, my tales from Gen Con are best told in reverse.
Last year was my first time at Gen Con as an employee of Paizo, and I spent most of it helping the amazing volunteers running Pathfinder Society events in the Sagamore Ballroom. Watching more than 1,400 tables of people playing Pathfinder together over the course of the convention was an awe-inspiring sight. Watching people spend hours of blood, sweat, and tears to make sure their fellow PFS members had a good time was actually emotionally moving for me. The entire point of RPGs is to play games together, and seeing dozens of people take hour and hours out of their convention fun to help other people's game experiences run smoothly was immensely fulfilling.
Last year was also the first Gen Con where freelance writers struck up conversations with me on the hallway, often getting around to asking if I would have writing opportunities to assign anytime soon. I remember being on the other end of that conversation, and I have to say most Paizo freelancers seem better at it than I remember being.
For many years before I was an employee at Paizo, that kind of networking with developers and editors was the main thing I did at Gen Con. The convention is one of the few places where multiple RPG companies have editors and developers present all in one building, so for a freelance RPG writer it's a target-rich environment. For a decade I considered travel to Gen Con less a vacation (though I always ended up having a great time), and more a necessary business trip. Thankfully I was well-enough known to be invited to the occasional private event, but mostly I went to places where editors and developers were likely to be found (dealer's room booths, the ENnie Awards, bars), and asked if anyone needed anything. I discovered that if developers know you well enough to ask if you can grab them a bottle of water, helping out often later results in being invited to a quick lunch or an event you'd otherwise have missed.
Such impromptu gatherings are amazing opportunities to get to better know people in the industry, and were instrumental in my building a network of people who might offer me work or who I could go to for career or design advice. Of course you have to follow up on such contacts, and don't miss out on opportunities closer to home. At one casual Gen Con gathering a few years ago, I realized that I never spoke to Greg Vaughn, who lived no more than 30 minutes from my house, except when we were both in Indianapolis, hundreds of miles from where we lived. He and I had a good laugh about that, but I also made sure to have lunch with him before the next Gen Con.
In 2010 when I was part of the Industry Insider program of seminars I also discovered there was a second level of networking at well, between peers who already have some success in the industry. Every seminar panel included some time just before and just after talking to the crowd where the panelists would say hi, exchange business cards, and sometimes see what meal plans fellow panelists had. I didn't follow-up on as many of those opportunities as I should have, but I did learn a lot over just a few shared lunches.
The chance to be at such social gatherings evolved slowly over the years I've attended Gen Con. Before anyone knew me by name, I spent most of my time at the convention listening to seminars, playing demo games (often run by luminaries in the industry who already held the kinds of positions I aspired to), and getting to know other gamers. I had some advantage because I worked for Wizards of the Coast briefly in 2000-2001, but for the most part my early Gen Con opportunities came from being in the right place at the right time. I found that the last panel of the day was a particularly good time to be visible and friendly, and more than once got invited to impromptu gatherings of fans and professionals just because everyone was hungry. In one of my early trips to Gen Con I managed to be invited (along with most of the front row of fans) to have dinner with Dave Arneson after he gave a seminar about his experiences with roleplaying games, dating back to his early experiments with Braunstein. I hadn't planned to try to go to dinner with one of the godfathers of my favorite hobby, I just got lucky because I stood around politely when the seminar came to an end.
In fact, my best moments at Gen Con have almost always been things I not only didn't plan for, but didn't even dream might happen. There's aren't that many opportunities for fans of tabletop games to rub elbows with their favorite designers and artists, but Gen Con brings so many people together that you always have a chance at an amazing encounter.
So it was at my very first Gen Con, sometime in the 1990s, I had the honor of playing an RPG with Gary Gygax... for about 90 seconds.
He was at a table in-or-near the TSR/WotC Castle (a magnificent structure used as the TSR/WotC booth in the Dealer's Room at the time), and I believe he was running some edition of D&D. A crowd of us were watching. He was an energetic and exciting storyteller, and just watching him run a game was a lot of fun. Someone's character died (killed mysteriously in the darkness, having walked away from the PCs' campfire and only light source). That player gave up a spot at the table, and Mr. Gygax pointed at me and boomed "You want to play!?"
Of course I did.
A character sheet was slapped in front of me. My turn came soon enough. THINGS were circling our camp. I was a warrior of some type—I think a ranger, but I didn't last long enough to get acquainted with my character. As my one action, I grabbed a burning log from our campfire and hurled it out at the multiple sets of red eyes stalking us. "Good!" Mr. Gygax shouted approvingly, and had me roll a d20. I have no idea what I rolled.
It wasn't good enough to hit any of the red-eyed threats, but it was enough to illuminate them. Massive black wolves, snarling and, we realized talking.
"Kill that one!" Mr. Gygax snarled, pointing at me and explaining the words came from the biggest wolf, directed at the rest of the pack.
And they did.
I lasted exactly one round. Mr. Gygax smiled, told me I was dead, and I should let someone else play.
I've been hooked on Gen Con ever since.
Owen KC Stephens