Shoemaker: Can you please tell me your name and how many Gen Con's you've attended.
Cabai: Well my name is Kevin Cabai and, I've had to go back and count, but I've attended 42 Gen Cons. My first one was in 1972. I missed 2 Gen Cons in the early 80s on deployments overseas when I was on active duty, but other than that it's been a continuous streak. In fact my wife started joining me in 85 and my kids have been coming since they were in gravita, when my wife was pregnant, and one is up to 29 and the other is up to 24 Gen Cons.
Shoemaker: Wow, do they still go with you and attend with you or do they kind of attend on their own now?
Cabai: They go with me. It's a family event. While there they may go their separate ways but we always seem to congregate for certain events and meals and such. We're a family unit at Gen Con now.
Shoemaker: Great. After all of those Gen Cons, I know they blur together over the years, but is there a favorite one that sticks out in your mind?
Cabai: I've thought about this, and yeah they do blur together. Certain things stand out. They keep increasing with enjoyment, and if there was a slight dip it was unnoticed and unreportable so to speak. But I would have to say my favorite Gen Con was my first in 1972. That was pretty unique. I was a freshman in high school. We drove up to Lake Geneva at the old Horticultural Hall with a group of friends and myself. We couldn't afford hotels so we camped out at Big Foot State Park. We were probably the youngest gamers to be at that Gen Con. We were just in awe. At that time there was obviously no internet. Mail order for products for miniatures was very slow. Most of it came from California or overseas. This was a chance to shop as well as game and socialize.
Shoemaker: Do you still see that shopping aspect today at Gen Con? I mean the vendor hall has just grown immensely, but at the same time it's a lot easier to get things from overseas. Do you still shop a lot at these newer Gen Cons?
Cabai: When I shop at Gen Con, currently, it's a little bit different. The majority of miniatures I need to get I get during the course of the year. Usually mail order, ebay. But at Gen Con there are so many unique things. And different things every year. I literally dedicate hours to go isle by isle to check out every booth because you never know what you're going to find. Last year I picked up a CD of Hobbit drinking songs. Now you can't search for that on ebay. Its thing like that, you never know who's going to be there. I like to support the growing hobbyists and the vendors. Shopping at Gen Con is a prime event for me. Even though I'm running 6 games, I don't have time to play anything I do make sure to get to the vendor hall. And I have to say the auction, too.
Shoemaker: What is it about the auction that you like?
Cabai: The auction is a great way to pick up items that are out of production, out of print. And there is a significant social aspect for the auction and the charity auction as well. I think we're going to touch on that later when I talk about my favorite events.
Shoemaker: Ok, well actually we're coming up to that right now! I'm just about ready to ask you, I mean you've spent so much time at Gen Cons, and you've just said you run a lot of events, you don't get to play much, but what is it you enjoy the most, whether it is to attend or run, what is your favorite event?
Cabai: I would have to say what's had the longest streak for our favorite events is a game put on by the Ottawa Red Shirts. They do a silent death game. It's called Astro Smash. It's a 12 player free for all with spaceships that you can gang up on everybody or make alliances and as you get successes you get a better ship time and time again. That introduced both of my sons to miniature gaming and it has become the requisite start of the convention. We'll play first thing Thursday morning, and we'll close with that game Sunday morning. My kids now will drive down to Indianapolis just to be part of that game. That is the favorite gaming event at Gen Con, but as you know Gen Con is so much more. One of the other things that stand out is the Balloon Dragon from Tim the Balloon Man. His first year there he created this dragon out of balloons. At the charity auction they auctioned off the right to slay the dragon. My wife and I have always been very big on the charity auction to give back to the hobby. We won the right, we offered the right to the next highest bidders, so we had a little team going there, and during the course of the event we talked to Tim who was real gracious about this, that about half way through we'd stop and have all the children watching, and we refer to them as the hobbits, to come and help us destroy the dragon. Since then, that has started a tradition and every year now they incorporate that as part of the events at Gen Con. That also alluded to another part. The charity auction at Gen Con is just phenomenal. Myself and a lot of the other old school gamers put together some of their best, most rare, items and donate it to whatever charity is going to be focused on that year. And every year they revolve it amongst the, this time in Indianapolis, and Frank Mentzer, the auctioneer along with his staff, just does such a fantastic job. Not only talking about the items but going into the provenance of each item. The staff there has such an in depth knowledge on everything gaming. It's pleasurable to sit there and not only get a part of history but be a part of history.
Shoemaker: Do you find that with just the charity auction or do you attend the regular auction as well?
Cabai: Usually I'm gaming too much so I don't have that much time, but I try to get to as much as the auction as I possibly can if nothing else, just to rest my feet. And again soak in part of this history. The auctioneers will have stories about how they found this item in the bottom drawer when they were working at TSR and they stuffed it away and then they found it again and they can tell you every little thing about it. Everyone there games. From the auction, and back to the charity auction, people voluntarily inflate their bids just to, you know, it's for a good cause and just to be part of it. It is very fulfilling to be able to do that. In a sense that most gamers, when you're out on the tables rolling dice or that you can't be a part of it.
Shoemaker: That's very true. Speaking of some of those things that you love about Gen Con, I know that you just mentioned that your sons have been coming with you and you guys bonded over a specific game there. How old were they when you started playing that game?
Cabai: I would say my youngest son was 8 and my oldest son was 11.
Shoemaker: Oh great, and they took to it right away?
Cabai: They learned. They were going to gaming since, again, my wife was pregnant. We used to utilize the daycare at times and bring them with. They started playing Fuzzy Heroes. They started with the card games. We watched them progress through the gaming environment. The Silent Death was kind of a macabre title, but it has become a real family event. Unfortunately now, the only downside is, they all tend to gang up on me right away.
Shoemaker: Hah, well they've learned from the best I'm sure.
Cabai: Hah, I'll take that.
Shoemaker: Alright, so moving along, I know you run a lot of games still, but you've got a long history at Gen Con. I am wondering what kinds of games you've run and played over the years?
Cabai: I've played most of the time in my early years and they were primarily miniature based. I did enjoy, later on, the Werewolf games. Things like that. When I'm running 6 games, I'll run 6, 5 hour games. In the old days, in the 80s, I'd run 12 hour games. It didn't leave much time for playing. I really haven't sampled the fruits of what Gen Con has to offer. I will notice games I will make a point to play at a less intense con or on my own, but my wife started out too, similar to my kids, starting with child friendly games with the boys and now my wife will do 8 to 10 events while she is at Gen Con. Her schedule is almost as hectic as mine. She tends to like what I call the individual contributor games. Race car games, Formula D, Circus Maximus, Wings of Glory, airplane games, things like that. Where it's more of a competitive type of game, a strategy type of game.
Shoemaker: So what is it that brings you back to GM, or just to run games, so often?
Cabai: Well I love the preparation aspect. I love the crafting of the miniatures and the terrain. I do a lot of historical games or Lord of the Rings games. I love spending hours delving into Tolkien's works to see if I can determine what the color is of a certain uniform or the type of organization they had. Putting that together in a game format where people can just walk up to the table, we can teach the rules, and come to a conclusion in a 4 or 5 hour time frame. And then I love the abstract parts of the game, too. Throwing in the unexpected. Seeing how people react to it. GMing is a skill, it's an art, and for me it's enjoyable. I love to kid with the players. Get an idea on how their minds operate. See how they work in a team environment, and see everybody play with my toys.
Shoemaker: That is satisfying I have to say as someone who runs games myself sometimes.
Cabai: Well you know what I mean then. You know, at Gen Con, and we may cover this in another question, but, Gen Con is, the whole atmosphere, is electric. The excitement of thousands and thousands of people who are there is perceptible. We're all there for the same purpose. To enjoy ourselves and have fun. It's not like going to a sporting event where you have 40,000 people and 20,000 are hoping that the other team loses. Everyone is there to have fun and enjoy themselves. Discover new things. There is an aura about the whole time period during there. A couple weeks prior to going to the con it starts to build up in us. I have to watch myself so I don't speed in route to Indianapolis to get there as fast as I can.
Shoemaker: Sticking with that thought for a second there, some of the other people I've interviewed have talked about this kind of energy and this great feeling. Particularly when they're first discovering Gen Con. How it was great to find this whole clan of gamers that they could finally belong to. Was that ever something that you felt?
Cabai: Yeah, it helped identify my spot in the social universe so to speak. Being a gamer in the 70s, you know, we were nerds before being nerds was a good thing. We didn't really broadcast to many people what we did because we had our own group that understood and enjoyed what we did. When we went to Gen Con we were exposed to other tribal clans, so to speak, all over the midwest or nationwide and it was refreshing and enjoyable because everyone spoke our language. Now that nerdism is popular and even a desirable character trait it's even better.
Shoemaker: Kind of speaking about how that's changed over the years, is there anything you're really missing about Gen Con that isn't done any more in the more recent shows?
Cabai: I've thought about that. I don't think that anything has disappeared that I'm dismayed about. They keep coming up with so many new ideas, so many new events, that if there was something I enjoyed at previous cons that just isn't at this con it's not missed. Certain performers. Certain specific types of individuals obviously come and go based on their schedules. I'm a big fan of Mystery Science Theater and for a number of years they've had them there. But you can't have lobster everyday either. You need to check out the rest of the buffet and everything on the buffet is great.
Shoemaker: Well speaking of that buffet, I know you mostly have stuck to miniature games, but you did start right around the time that Dungeons and Dragons was taking off.
Cabai: Oh yes...
Shoemaker: I'm wondering just how noticeable that was and if you actually gave it a try yourself?
Cabai: I think it was 74, or 75 we were at the Horticultural Hall and D&D had their first product launch. It came in the 3 volume set with the box. It was $12, and none of us really wanted to commit that much. I think we had only maybe 20 bucks a piece to spend. These were days when an orc would cost $0.25. We didn't have a lot of disposable income. We pooled together, we bought a set and we started playing right there and in fact what is even more rememerable about this is that at these early conventions Gary Gygax would work the registration desk as you walked in, there was Gary. You know, handing you your ticket. We purchased the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Read up on it that night and the next day we came back, found ourselves a table and we started playing. Kept on getting killed by a couple of skeletons right off the bat but we learned. We played it fairly consistently for a number of years. Each one of us had our own dungeons. I think that goes back to the miniatures part of us where, the creativity part, we weren't satisfied enough to be just an adventurer in the dungeon. We all wanted to create our own dungeon. In fact one of the projects we collaborated on was the City of Lankhmar, and that was from the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser series by Fritz Leiber. In fact he would be at some of the shows. We had this massive 8 foot by 6 foot graph paper city, which was really a dungeon only pretty much on 1 level. We would do town adventures. When they started coming out with the other books and that, I think the historical part of us, our gaming part, got the better of us and we really did more miniature gaming after that. We had fun doing it, it was unique, it was different. In fact some of the things I learned in my initial D&D I incorporate in my miniature games now.
Shoemaker: I'm wondering a bit about your Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series game. Did you, you said it was like running a dungeon in the city. Did you actually run it like a dungeon in the city or was it any different? What did you change about it?
Cabai: No, someone would be the mayor. He would be the dungeon master, and we would have our party going to complete a quest at some part in the city. The mayor would run npcs and run it just like a dungeon. Some buildings may have a couple stories and some may have basements. Wherever possible we tried to do it blind where you only saw certain parts of the area where you were. In all respects it was a dungeon adventure, although not in the strictest sense.
Shoemaker: Changing speeds here a little bit, the Dungeons and Dragons transition was a big one, but Gen Con has obviously moved a lot. Which has been its own transitional periods. From Lake Geneva, to the Playboy Club, out to Parkside and Milwaukee, etc. Did the transition to Indianapolis, to you, feel any different than the transitions between, say, maybe Parkside and Milwaukee?
Cabai: Definitely so. Lake Geneva is almost in my backyard. It's less than an hour away. Kenosha the same. Milwaukee, an hour and 20 minutes. Going to Gen Con at that point was real similar to going to any other local con. Origins was held at Ann Arbor during that time, so, it was one of the convention events we would go to. One of the bigger ones. But it had more of a homey feel. The Horticultural Hall was just, when my wife and I go back to Lake Geneva I make her take a look and I point it out each time. It just had an innocence about it. This is where it all started. Gary Con is now at the Playboy Club. We were there for that year, though I have to say I was 18 at the time and I didn't get much gaming in. I was kind of in awe at the sights. Kenosha was kind of a disjointed type of convention just because of the setup. The way it was. Everyone was really in their own little environment. Not much ability, really, to interact with the other groups. But it was good for what it needed. Milwaukee was a high point. The setup they had there I really loved. The convention center was right across from the Hyatt. The Hyatt was the main hotel. The way the Hyatts were, and a lot of them still are now, they have this huge atrium in the middle. I can remember after a full day of GMing, shopping, socializing, going up to the rooms, going up to the 12th, 13th floor, and then looking over down into the atrium. Everything was packed with gamers. Everybody was talking and socializing, gaming, pickup games everywhere. And I'd go into the room exhausted, but I was missing something. There was stuff going on right there outside of my door. I'd go back and look, look down and go back to the room. Get the urge again and look and recognize someone at the bar or something like that and take the elevator down and then spend another couple hours there. That was a great, small, not sure what the word is, but a great intimate environment to meet gamers with. When it went down to Indianapolis, you know, if you're a baseball fan it's the big show. It's the world series. Everything is different in a sense. I mean, people are literally coming world over for it. Gen Con has paid its dues, has graduated to the big time and it's getting the recognition that it deserves. When I talk to people and talk about Gen Con there is some people that haven't been there since it's been down in Indianapolis and are a little intimidated by the vastness of it. It can be overwhelming. I always like to think that Gen Con has transitioned into New York City. Yes, its big, its imposing, its vast. But you know, New York City is broken down into boroughs. Every borough has its own culture. And that's how Gen Con is now. I mean there is a miniatures environment, True Dungeon environment, roleplaying environment, collectible card games. I mean, it's all there under one roof. You just have to decide which borough you wanna spend your time in.
Shoemaker: Sticking with the theme of transitions. You've lived through the Dungeons and Dragons transition. There was another one in the 1990s known as Magic the Gathering. I'm just wondering how you experienced Magic in the 90s and if you gave that game a try as well.
Cabai: Magic was just something so radically different when it first came out. Being a long time gamer from board games to miniatures and then roleplaying. To do something so simplistic yet enjoyable as a card game like this was genius. People took to it dramatically. It was so popular. You didn't have to spend hours and hundreds of dollars collecting an army to paint and build. You didn't have to carefully cultivate a character for years and learn all the ins and outs of different rule books as in a roleplaying game. You could buy a couple packs of cards and sit down with someone and play. Its a great idea. Personally, it wasn't for me. Again, the crafting aspect of miniature gaming still holds a powerful sway. When Iron Crown Enterprises came out with their Lord of the Rings game, that was extremely enjoyable and I spent hours and dollars making sure I had the entire set. Not for playing, though I did play a couple of times, but more for collecting the artwork. I did the same when Decipher came out with their Lord of the Rings. My kids, perfect demographics for it. My older son was enveloped and swallowed by Pokemon. I can remember sitting there helping him sort his cards and kind of making sure he didn't get the wrong end of trades with some of the older players. Because he was younger at the time. My younger son came in just at the heart of the Yu Gi Oh craze. I've watched those games give them countless hours of playing and enjoyment.