Gaming was far different in the era before the internet. A person needed to actually be in the same room to play an roleplaying game or card game. There were play by mail games (Diplomacy was huge for this) but many players didn’t want to wait a week to hear the result of a move.
The gaming business was also vastly different. When I joined the gaming industry in 1991 there was a three-tier distribution system (I think it still sort of is, but I don’t know). Manufacturers would sell their games to distributors and the distributors would then sell them to the retail shops as well as the few mail order outlets. The stores would call distributors who would ship them their orders. When I started with Chessex Game Distributors in ’91, there were also still traveling reps who would go from store to store selling games on behalf of a distributor, but they were becoming a dying breed.
A tale of gaming past
A new form of communication made the reps (and phone personnel) a bit obsolete — the (wait for it…) fax machine! Retailers would fax in their orders. Of course this meant they needed to know what was new any given day, usually by a faxed newsletter from the distributors.
However, the phone rep was still a must. At Chessex (and I assume at other places) the reps had to know gaming. When I started for example, Ron M was a master painter and played any game you could name. Tim O was a veteran of Games Workshop, and his brother ran Task Force Games, makers of Star Fleet Battles. In 1992 I started working freelance for TSR, and management saw this as a plus. The phone reps could then make recommendations to retailers about which games would sell well and which ones, well, wouldn’t.
Also absolutely essential pre-internet were gaming conventions. Here was a celebration of gaming back when it was far from fashionable. The largest gaming cons in the US in 1991 were Origins for wargaming and Gen Con for RPGs. Of course, both cons did both genres but each was more specialized in their own genre.
This is where my story begins. In August 1993, Gen Con was still held at MECCA (now gone) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. TSR was still cock of the walk, and this was their convention (back then TSR was based in Lake Geneva, Wisc.) The previous month a little known company called Wizards of the Coast released a card game called Magic: the Gathering. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Another really popular RPG was Vampire: the Masquerade, a horror RPG with modern day vampires (duh). This game was two years old then. Got that?
I attended that Gen Con, where my job was to see every new release, especially from new companies. While a lot of fun, it was very tiring. That Gen Con every possible flat surface was occupied by people playing Magic. The bar across the street, Major Goolsbys, was packed with players, as were the hallways of every hotel as well as MECCA itself. There was a skywalk between MECCA and the Hyatt hotel across the street plugged with players as well.
After a very long day I sat at the bar in the atrium of the Hyatt waiting for a few friends to join me for dinner. The Milwaukee Hyatt has one of those open interior designs with the rooms being along the walls and the area in the middle open. Back then there was a cabana bar there in the atrium. It also had tables but they were jammed with Magic players.
Anyway, I sat at the bar. Back then I wore a small silver ankh necklace occasionally, given to me by an ex-girlfriend. I was wearing a black polo shirt and khaki shorts and was drinking an Absolut screwdriver. I include those details to show how burned into my memory this event is. Sitting a couple of seats over was a pale guy with long black hair, black T-shirt, black pants, black boots and sunglasses (indoors), with his arms crossed over his chest and hands pointed to his shoulders. They looked suitably tragic, I guess. On the bar in front of him was a bowl of bar snacks. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and was hungry.
I looked over at goth guy, gestured toward the bowl of snacks and said, “Hey friend, could you pass me the snacks?”
He turned suddenly toward me as if I’d insulted his mother and snatched his sunglasses off his face. His eyes wide with horror and maybe lack of sleep, he acted terrified, his whole body shaking. His hands were now clutching his head and I noticed he was wearing the Vampire: the Masquerade T-shirt and a large silver ankh necklace.
As he stared in me with horror, he shouted at the top of his lungs “You can’t see me! I’m invisible! I’M INVISIBLE!” He then sprinted across the lobby at full speed, shrieking “I’M INVISIBLE!”
Looking in the direction he was running through the now stunned silent atrium, I reached for the snack bowl. The bartender was now in front of me, and I asked him “what’s his problem?” The bartender looked as stunned as everyone else.
Epilogue — Gen Con 1993
I didn’t know White Wolf’s (publishers of Vampire) major Gen Con release was something new and innovative — the Vampire Live Action Role Playing Game. Oh, people dressed up to play games before, but this had a Game Master and was immersive. The company was running a convention long game with, if memory serves, players gaining access to the fabled White Wolf industry only party on Saturday night. Those parties featured… well, that’s a sordid tale strictly for mature readers.
I didn’t know it, but wearing a silver ankh necklace was how players identified each other as being players, and certain gestures indicated such things as powers being used, like Presence, or say… Invisibility.
The shrieking goth guy? His pointing at his shoulders indicated to other players he was invisible.
So this was my introduction to LARPing. I threw my ankh necklace into the Milwaukee River on the way back from dinner that night, and wouldn’t own one again until buying a silver ankh charm in Paris a year ago.
Oh, and Magic? I called my boss the first day of the con and told him to order all the Magic that WoTC had in stock, which he did. For one brief shining moment, Chessex cornered the market. A phenomenon began that Gen Con, one that continues to this day.