Set Life-Force Buttons to Level 20

GenCon uses the force to unite gamers, elves, Vin Diesel

Photo by James BunoanAfter finding an empty seat inside the war zoneotherwise known as the Anaheim Convention Center, the two wizards prepared for battle. Each drew seven playing cards representing oceans, plains and various monsters under their dominion, and then set their life-force buttons to Level 20. Their goal: drop the other wizard's life force down to zero by hurling monsters and arrows of fire at one another.

The younger of the two wizards had a special advantage: first-hand knowledge of the Japanese trading card game Yu-Gi-Oh.

"This is just like Yu-Gi-Oh," declared the wizard, a 10-year-old boy named Carter. "But in this game, you draw seven cards instead of five."

It was the latest version of Magic the Gathering, America's No. 1 trading-card game, unveiled Dec. 2, the first day of the annual GenCon gaming conference in Anaheim. The conference also marked the 30th anniversary of the role-playing adventure game that started it all: Dungeons & Dragons. But wizards aside, there were no fighters, orcs, elves or dwarves on hand. Also yet to appear were celebrity gamers such as Vin Diesel, who wrote a forward to a coffee-table book celebrating the anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons; Diesel was scheduled to make a convention appearance over the weekend.

Instead, there was a Raquel Gardner, a silicone-enhanced "supermodel" from such classics as A Night at the Roxbury and Species II, signing copies of her posters. There were booths selling samurai swords, ninja throwing stars and variegated assassin tools—even a burly guy selling camouflage kilts with cargo pockets and carpenter loops. (He sold seven "utili-kilts" in just a few hours.)

Mostly, there were games and gamers of all stripes. Every 10 minutes, a dozen eager young dungeon delvers lined up to play Eberron, D&D's newest campaign, which is set in a pre-industrial-revolution world where magic is treated as technology. Meanwhile, a stylish squire in leather Jedi knight attire—complete with strap-on boots and padded tunic—sampled the computer game Republic Commando, a Star Wars spin-off. Nearby, a game master provided free demonstrations of Guild Wars, an online adventure game similar to D&D.

"This game is designed to be enjoyed, not endured," he said helpfully. "There's no travel time between adventures. And the game automatically connects you to the server every time you play to make sure you have all the latest information." Unfortunately, after allowing a would-be knight to choose his haircut and armor, the server crashed. Ten minutes later, the game master was still scratching his head in an unsuccessful effort to get the crashed server to reboot. "Hmm, I wonder why it's not working," he finally said.

The crashed server helps explain why, three decades after it became a phenomenon with college hippies and junior-high-school geniuses throughout the land, D&D—a game that uses rolling dice to simulate every conceivable thought or action in a heroic dungeon adventure—still holds such power. D&D may have changed over the years—the game's current, third edition features artwork inspired by Japanese anime, multicultural characters, even muscle-bound female warriors—but the basic concept of having the smartest kid on the block, as opposed to a computer, act as Dungeon Master hasn't evolved.

Ed Stark is a special-projects manager with Wizards of the Coast Inc., which bought D&D from the company that created it, TSR Hobbies Inc., several years ago. While taking a break from helping demonstrate Eberron, he said that new data shows 3.6 million people across the world are regular D&D players, which means they play at least once a month.

"People think the early 1980s was the heyday," Stark said. "That's true, but the data shows more people are playing it than ever before. D&D has become sort of a cultural icon. It tapped into something that is very common in our culture: we like fantasy. People can relate to it because we've got thousands of years of shared experience teaching us about things like wizards and dragons.

"Dungeons & Dragons is ultimately a social experience," Stark continued. "With a computer DM [that's geek-speak for dungeon master], there's no human input. If I try to turn left into the forest, the computer will say I've run into a wall of impenetrable trees. With a human DM, he can tell me what happens if I take out an axe and start chopping down the trees."

 
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