Shoemaker: Can you tell me your name and how many Gen Cons you've been to?
Valley: My name is Thomas Valley, I'd say some of the Gen Con's I've attended were lightweight, I was either very young or I came back for a day, so overall I'd say 20 distinct Gen Cons.
Shoemaker: Do you have a favorite of all of these at all?
Valley: Yeah, I think it was Gen Con Origins, 84, or 85…
Shoemaker: It was 88
Valley: Wow, 88, yeah Gen Con Origins when the two cons came together suddenly there was Milwaukee, the streets ran red with gamer blood. It was amazing.
Shoemaker: What was it like attending that one? What was so special about it for you?
Valley: I relate it to when I used to work in New York City, I would ride the train in from Stanford Connecticut and get off at Grand Central Station and there were so many people around that you felt like you were at the center of something. The center of something important. At that particular convention we felt like we were the center of the world. It was as if everyone was there for the same purpose, and every bar you went into, every tavern, every store had something up "Come on gamers come on in!" you know, it was extremely welcoming and most of us I would say for most of our lives are on the edges, the fringes, of society and, boy, suddenly the entire city was like the island of lost toys.
Shoemaker: So one of the reasons I wanted to talk interview you is because while we were going through these programs your name kept popping up in the 80s, you were running lots of games. What made you decide to run so many games and what did you like about it?
Valley: I grew up a control freak. That’s a simple way of putting it, but I like to tell stories and I like to be the center of attention. I ended up continuously writing when I was younger. Creating adventures, creating campaigns, and Gen Con was basically the touch stone for me to see all of that stuff in action.
Shoemaker: Did you do other conventions as well?
Shoemaker: Was Gen Con the main place you played those games then or did you also do a lot of it at home?
Valley: Yeah, we had home games all the time.
Shoemaker: So I know you ran a variety of games, did you have a favorite type you liked to run or attend and play in?
Valley: Well, I was running D&D, first edition, second edition for many years. Then, my local group, we started up a lot of wargaming and one of the things we got really attached to was Battletech. You know, 60 foot tall robots, beating it out over a landscape. And then I began to create Battletech campaigns. One of those campaigns was a world that I created called Junk Mech, which had special home brew rules regarding what was left on the battle field and what you could pick up, some background to it, and at a particular Gen Con I was running Junk Mech from 8am to midnight at a specific table and people could join at any time with a generic ticket, get a mech on the field, fight however much they want, collect points and at the end of the day we would hand out the certificate for the dealer's room to whoever had the most points. That was the plan. But that was also the year the Wizards of the Coast first attended Gen Con. And at around noon, two of my friends showed up and said they had found this cool game, Magic the Gathering, and at about 2 o'clock in the afternoon no one was playing Battletech anymore.
Shoemaker: So Magic really changed things for you then?
Valley: It did. We went back that year, we bought as many cards as we could from that small booth. And then a friend of mine became a distributor. He decided that that was what he wanted to do. He worked at a comic shop in Sheboygan and he wanted to become a distributor so he started outfitting local comic shops in Wisconsin, and then throughout the midwest with Magic cards. He was eventually able to buy a nice big white SUV which he carted around all of his cards all based on his profits from reselling Magic cards, and then he had an office where my friends and I, we ran a business out of the office, they shared the office with us, and then he eventually got out of the business, sold it to his partner and that business is now ACD. That’s like the biggest midwest comics distributor, they're based out of Madison and so that’s how that started was with Magic the Gathering.
Shoemaker: In the years you've gone, have there been any major transitions that you've noticed. I mean, Magic you just talked about was a big one…
Valley: That was a big one, yeah. I remember the year or two after at Gen Con there was a big kind of a grognard pushback against Magic and against all collectible card games. The people that were entrenched in Gen Con really felt that it was threatening their lifestyle. It was threatening their gaming atmosphere. There were posters that someone had put up all around Gen Con, "Are you Sick of Magic? Well you can come to this game and play..." but that was the selling point, are you sick of magic? That was a big transition for the convention.
Shoemaker: Last question I have for you, is do you have any thoughts on how Gen Con should progress in the future?
Valley: Well, you know, I live in Florida now so I don't get an opportunity to attend it. I, you know, I got a chance to visit it a couple of years ago and it struck me that I am now one of the old guard and I am now one of the guys who has a bad reaction to its current transition. Which is I am not a fan of cosplay, I am not a fan of fandom, the fandom scene, and Gen Con, just walking around, had a cosplay alley. And it just strikes me, I don't understand that environment, that context, and so it may not be the convention for me anymore.
Shoemaker: Do you have any final thoughts or anything you just want to tell me about Gen Con?
Valley: My first time going to Gen Con, my mom drove us up and we camped at the camp ground in Kenosha to attend Parkside. So my first memories of Gen Con were waking up in a camper at a campground and then getting my gaming stuff together and my mom taking me.