Is it a game, or real life? What's the difference? Dave Buschke, in blue tennis shoes, a T-shirt, and a "Darth Vader for President" button stuck in his blue baseball cap, waited impatiently for the "Ogre" tournament to start, but the gamemaster hadn't shown up yet. "If worst comes to worst, I'll get my 'Star Fleet Battles' stuff," the 25-year-old computer operator said. "That's what I live for, to blow up those Klingon --------."

Buschke was one of 3,000 East Coast game enthusiasts who gathered for the Eastcon Gaming Convention at Glassboro State College here this weekend to indulge their fantasies in hundreds of board games such as "Cosmic Encounters" ("the perennial favorite"); games using elaborate boards and miniature figurines, such as "The Campaign Against Fort Perilous" ("ship-of-the-line rules"); and such role-playing games as "A Hunting We Will Go" ("wanted: group of desperate cannon fodder to go on a dragon hunt"), "For Ladies Only" ("a group of Amazons attempt to rescue two of their sisters who have been captured by a perverse, chauvinistic baron") and "Vengeance on the Astra Marta" ("pride of the Denetian Corporation maritime fleet. You the player take vengeance on the ship, passengers and company for various reasons").

The players, most of them of high school and college age but many older, spent three exhausting days gaming from 8 a.m. to midnight, exchanging information, attending seminars, meeting science fiction writers and game writers, and perusing a vast display of the latest games and game-related equipment of a hundred manufacturers.

There was an art show where you could buy fantasy comic books and paintings of dragons and spaceships, knights in capes and naked women wielding swords against armies of laser-toting crocodiles. There was a T-shirt saying, "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out"; a button declaring, "Nuke the Smurfs"; and whole boards full of miniature soldiers and serfs of the Napoleonic era.

"I've been a gamester all my life," said convention organizer Allen Barwick, 39, a physics teacher at Wilson High School in Washington. "I spent one whole summer of my life playing 'Monopoly.' " Barwick said gaming, especially the new open-ended role-playing games in which there are neither winners nor losers but everybody has a great old time, are rapidly growing in popularity across the United States.

"We thought the role-playing games might have been a fad, but it's hung on," Barwick said. Pointing across the room at a man wearing a black cape and grasping a gnarled staff, Barwick said, "Some people interested in role-playing literally dress the part and live it for a day or so."

The man in the cape was Tim Carnahan, 22, who said he had just moved to Washington as a structural engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Carnahan said he dressed up for gaming because "the more you impress your opponent, the better your chances . . . What I appear to be is a man of power . . . It's fitting yourself into the mood of the playing, getting to be imaginative. This puts me in a better position to fly a starship. It enhances the feeling."

John T. Sapienza Jr., 40, an IRS attorney in Washington and a leading writer on gaming for Different Worlds magazine, said, "Role-playing gaming is like participating in story-telling where you get to be a character in a book. The whole thing takes place in your imagination." John Sapienza led a seminar on whether fantasy role-playing games, which have been denounced as witchcraft, are dangerous. His answer: yes and no. "It is dangerous if taken in excess, like any monomania," he said. "If you spend your hours gaming instead of doing your homework, you're going to flunk out of school. But the same can be said of football."

Two hundred high school kids waited noisily in an auditorium to be divided into groups to play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the grandfather of the role-playing fantasy games and one with enormously complex and tightly controlling rules.

"Didn't you go and see those old Errol Flynn movies and say, 'Hey, I'd like to do that!' Just once you'd be able to cast a spell," said a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania.

"It gives you power you ordinarily wouldn't have," said his companion, Scot, 14. "You can kill or stop all the evil depending on what you want to do."

"Without getting arrested," put in a third teen-ager, Mark.

"You get to play out your heroes, like," said Scot.

"You can go and kill, mutilate, pillage, burn villages and not get arrested," said Mark, who wore a "Divers Do It Deeper" T-shirt. "It puts a new dimension into life."

"It's a good way to escape reality and it doesn't cause damage," said a New Jersey teen-ager, John.

The youths said they were no different from other kids their age, although they said they were often so wrapped up in gaming that they didn't even consider taking drugs or drinking.

"You can be sort of high on life when you do gaming ," said Mark. "Sometimes it gives you something to do besides drugs."

All these kids said they intended to go to college.

Buschke, the man in the blue cap, finally got to play "Ogre" when the gamemaster showed up. Although it is a simple board game, Buschke described it enthusiastically as "a strategic simulation fitting a massive cybernetic tank--computer-controlled, self-cognitive--called an Ogre--against modern infantry, regular tanks, missiles and other units." In imagination the Ogre, said Buschke, is "the size of eight stacked Greyhound buses with the firepower of a division." He said it could only be destroyed by a tactical nuke, although the infantry and other units can whittle it down piece by piece.

Buschke said his great gaming love is a role-playing game called "Traveller" in which he has played the same character for three years in the local gaming group of which he is a member.

His group has met twice a month for that period, Buschke said, and he described his continuing role as a doctor in the imperial navy as allowing him to "act out a lot of my fantasies." He described the club sessions as "both an ego trip and a bull session," not unlike other community recreational activities in which people get to know one another better and better over a period of years.

Buschke's adversary in the "Ogre" game was 21-year-old Arin Schonbach, a college student recently commissioned as an Army second lieutenant through a ROTC program. Schonbach called role-gaming "a release for the imagination. It lets you do things you'd never do in real life . . . It's similar to chess, the oldest war game there is."

Schonbach, dressed in a black shirt and carrying an olive-drab military courier's case, said he was looking forward most of all to playing "Aftermath," "a simulation of the world coming to an end in the near future, not necessarily by nuclear war. Civilization is gone, whether by plague or economic collapse or whatever.

"It's what you do when everything has fallen apart," added Buschke.

Salvadore Nardozzi, a 22-year-old law student, was an enthusiastic gamemaster for much of the three-day conference. Gamemasters are critical to the success of the role-playing games. While elaborate rules are laid out for the games in books written by their creators, the specific scenarios vary each time the game is played. In "Aftermath," for example, the gamemaster can arrange players and their problems in many different ways against the end-of-the-world backdrop.

The gamemaster also decides when players will roll the dice to determine what their fate is or what their next action will be. The numbers on the die are used in conjunction with often elaborate charts in the game books to make these determinations.

Nardozzi was a particularly enthusiastic gamemaster, sending teen-agers in a gangsters game off on their adventure with shouts and gesticulations as he imitated a gangland boss.

"Boom!" he shouted at one point. "A 6-foot flame shoots out. No shirt, no body! Card dealer is gone!"

The participants laughed as Nardozzi waved his arms. Throughout the game he kept things interesting for them and acted as referee. At the end he awarded a couple of prizes, based on his own judgment, to kids who had played their roles best.

"Youse done good, lads!" he exclaimed.

Nardozzi said he liked gaming because "it lets off steam. Before I started playing these games, I was the local tough." Nardozzi said he planned to become a lawyer. "The laws to me are a set of rules like a game. I am really looking forward to law school."

Nardozzi said some gamers go too far. He recalled a woman in his game group who assumed her role to such an extent that she lost the ability to distinguish gaming from reality and had to be evicted from the gaming group.

He recalled another instance when a gamer seemed to be "playing out his perversions" through gaming. "The guy himself seemingly got sexual gratification" from gaming, Nardozzi said. "That's ridiculous."

Science fiction author Christopher Stasheff ("A Wizard in Bedlam" and "The Warlock Unlocked") gave a lecture on the relationship between science fiction and fantasy gaming. He said gaming grew out of science fiction. "It's not that new," he said of gaming. He said that even the new open-ended role-playing games, where the point is not to win or lose but to play well, are not so different from a board game such as "Monopoly," in which the game can go on forever if there are enough players and enough money.

"So all you've got today is new variations on the same phenomenon. It's not that war gaming and fantasy gaming is new so much as that people who don't do it can no longer ignore it."

"Cops and robbers. That's where it all comes from," said Sapienza, who attended the lecture.

"Cops and robbers was never really over," said Stasheff. "The same good guys and bad guys came back the next day. Till you grew up."

"Alas," said Sapienza, "what we learned in the last 10 years is that you don't have to stop when you grow up."

Eric Olson, 21, a recent Georgetown University graduate who is entering U.S. naval intelligence, spends his spare time writing and working for a Washington-based game company, Ragnarok Enterprises. Olson said there are several gaming clubs in the Washington area, including Sapienza's Washington Area Gamers, with a fluctuating membership of 50 to 150, and Barwick's Wesley Area Gamers, with about 70 members.

"It's growing, " he said.

Ragnarok, which Olson said means the death of the gods in Norse mythology, is run by David Nalle, a graduate student in medieval history. The company has published a game, "Ysgarth," a simulation of life in a medieval world full of magic and demons. The company also publishes a magazine, Abyss. The leading article in the May/June issue is titled "Witchhunt!" and begins, "The great European witch craze of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries is a fascinating period of social anxiety and conflict. The entire idea of this type of situation suggests interesting possibilities for role-playing adventures."

Sapienza, in defending fantasy role-gaming against its critics, wrote in a recent issue of the magazine Gameplay that "another important benefit role-gaming offers is encouraging interest in many fields that the child might otherwise find dry and dull in school. History, Culture, Religion and other areas of knowledge come alive in a well-run role-gaming campaign."

Pamela Boynton, of the Schenectady (N.Y.) Wargamers and one of perhaps 100 women players last weekend, stood in a hallway waiting for the "Amazon" game to begin. She was dressed in what she called a harem costume--a bikini supplemented with veils and pearls.

"I'm 29 and I'm married and have a puppy dog," said Boynton, a bookstore manager in real life. But this weekend she was "an elf . . . I like reading fantasy and gaming . It's being something else besides what you are in a situation where you get to solve puzzles. Most of fantasy gaming is not hack and slash and kill. It's either daydreaming or puzzles."

Boynton said she liked gaming because "it's like walking into the plot of a good book," but she said her husband "can't stand any of this. It's not football, soccer or hockey."

The "Aftermath" game began at dusk in a small classroom filled with the last slanting light of the day. You could hear the birds chirping outside over the hum of the big air conditioners.

The gamemaster was George R. Paulishak, a former U.S. Marine who wore a Solidarnosc button. There were 10 players, including Arin Schonbach, who, as the game proceeded into the night, would become the undisputed leader of the group.

Each player received a detailed sheet describing the character he was to play. There was Tom, the nice man, armed with two trench knives. Next was Beer, a tough physical mutation, his skin leathery from post-nuclear radiation. Another character, Toscati, carried a pistol and the radio detection gear. There was a doctor, a tracker and someone who was a dead-sure shot with a 30.06 rifle.

The players were to be judged by the gamemaster on wit, will, strength, deftness, speed and health.

The game began when Paulishak painted the grim scenario: You are in a post-holocaust world. Rumors are coming in from scouts on the periphery that a powerful warlord is marching toward a still-existing cache of technology and weapons. Your job is to reach that cache first, which can be accomplished by a 12-day march on horseback across dangerous terrain.

"Any fallout danger?" asked one player.

"There might be some residual radiation," said Paulishak.

"Any bio areas?" came another question.

"Might be a few," said Paulishak.

"Hmmm. That's worse than radiation," said one player.

"Any idea how long it will take this dictator dude to get there?" asked another player.

And so it went, until the group had organized itself and moved out in formation across the imaginary blasted landscape.

They came to a river. After surveying the other bank with binoculars, Schonbach went across first alone. Then he ordered the others across, one at a time. Suddenly there were big ripples in the water upstream, moving fast toward one of those crossing.

"I'm gonna fire," said a player. He fired and hit the rippling motion dead center.

"It was a waste of ammo," shouted one player.

"I don't appreciate that comment," shot back the one who had fired.

"I'd rather see lost ammunition than a lost horse," said Schonbach, mediating the dispute.

"It looks like it might be a mutated steelhead," said Paulishak.

"If it is, it's a dead mutated steelhead," said Schonbach.

With that, he again placed his troops in formation and moved out in the glare of the morning sun.