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From Con to Con: I Was a GenCon Virgin

When I was approached to don the pointed chef’s hat and add to the stew, one of the first posts I drafted reflected on running a monthly game. I’ve been running a monthly game for almost half a year now, and it occurred to me that there were many parallels with convention gaming, parallels I couldn’t make if I hadn’t gone to my first gaming convention (GenCon 2007) last year. Also, due to that experience and my own freelancing projects, my monthly game soon became a playtest group as well as a staging ground for my first GMing experience at GenCon 2008. I’ve learned and am still learning a lot of lessons on this journey and I wanted to share them with you all. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Last Spring, one of the publishers I freelance for asked me if I’d be going to GenCon. I’d never been to a con before and I wasn’t planning to go to this one. That said, his question sparked my interest. Where better to meet and greet potential employers, fellow writers and gamers? After talking it over with my wife (when you’re married with children, it’s best never to make a decision alone, especially one that would cost hundreds of dollars and four days halfway across the country), I decided to go.

I wasn’t going in any official capacity so I decided to sign up for games. I was lucky enough to be able to sign up when event registration went live and spent the next 40 minutes trying to get my first round of games (in hindsight, this would be a blessing compared to the several hours I’d spend on this year’s event registration).

I ended up making quite a few rookie mistakes and I thought it would be fun (and educational) to share them. Maybe some of my lessons learned will be helpful for those attending GenCon 2008. So, in no particular order:

Staying offsite vs. onsite

Hotels were cheaper closer to the airport. However, I also rented a car which somewhat mitigated the price difference. I found myself experiencing deja vu from my college commuter days. Unless you plan to get to the convention center early (and I mean “early!”), then expect to park 10 blocks away. While a long walk is good exercise, it can get tedious if you need to run back to the car at various points during the day. Once I’d return to my hotel, I was done for the day. Since I’d kept my nights free, I was often back to my hotel by dinnertime and missed out on the gamer geek nightlife.

Waiting in Line

This was my first time in Indianapolis as well as my first con. As I drove past the convention center looking for a parking spot I noticed an extremely long line outside. It didn’t occur to me that this was a registration line (I thought the con didn’t open until 11) and I actually stood in line for over half an hour before someone told me that I didn’t have to be there. Geez, freshman year all over again!

Scheduling Games

Since I was commuting, I didn’t want to sign up for games too early. Also, my original plans included bringing my wife and daughter along, so I left my evenings open. Unfortunately, the dealer hall was only open from 11-6 (I think), which meant that I rarely had more than an hour to visit it during the day. If you want to spend time browsing the dealer hall, don’t load up on afternoon games.

Get the Lay of the Land

Don’t be fooled by the fact that the hotels are close together. It can be quite a chore trying to get from the Omni to the Embassy Suites in time for the next session and that is not the time to start studying signs. Keep your schedule on hand and map out your events.

Make Back-up Plans

Just because you’re signed up doesn’t mean that you’ll be playing a game. From what I understand, scheduling at GenCon last year was particularly ridiculous and virtually all of the games I played in were shuffling rooms. Even GMs were sometimes unsure about where their games were being held (we waited for 40 minutes at one game for a GM that never showed up due to this). Do yourself a favor, purchase a general event ticket and note games that start a little later than your scheduled one. This gives you an opportunity to see if there’s an opening for another game.

There is always the possibility of a mistake. One game I was particularly interested in, a Doctor Who Call of Cthulhu game, was supposed to be “walk-in only” but ended up on the registration list. A number of people had to be turned away.

RPGA Games are a special breed

For the most part, you don’t need to bring anything to a con game. You simply show up and a character and dice are provided for you. Not so with RPGA games. You’re expected to be an RPGA member and have your own character. I don’t normally play tournament-style games and I only signed up to try out the then-new Star Wars saga edition, but I had a few uncomfortable moments as the GM tried to deal with this unprepared player (I had to join the RPGA at virtual gunpoint in order to play that session).

Also, I don’t know if my experience was unique, but the Star Wars game was set up for three combat encounters. We finished well short of the 5 hours allotted to the game (I think it was 3, all told). This is another reason to have those general tickets burning in your pocket.

That’s all I can recall at the moment, but if anyone else wants to share GenCon tips and war stories it would be most appreciated! Next time, my journey continues as I talk about how I used my GenCon experiences to set up my monthly game.

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "From Con to Con: I Was a GenCon Virgin"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On May 19, 2008 @ 6:51 am

Good points. I wish I had read something like this before my first trip to Mecca, er Indy.

This will be my fourth Gen Con. I’m no veteran compared with some, but I have learned a thing or three…

– There are a few ‘stop & rob’ shops nearby; make use of them. Bottled water and snack bars are great money-savers.
– Drink lots of water. You’ll do a lot more walking and talking than usual, and will probably take in a lot more caffeine and alcohol.
– Don’t jam-pack the rooms unless you really can’t afford it. You might not be getting much sleep, so make sure the sleep you get is quality.
– Take a shower every day, and wear deodorant and clean clothes. Seriously.
– Set aside at least four hours for the Dealer Room. You will regret it far less than that four-hour game that sounded awesome, but really wasn’t…
– Cruise the Auction. You’ll be surprised what you might find, and how little it costs.
– Go to a few seminars. (Especially mine. 🙂 ) Take advantage of the ‘distilled geekery’ that is Gen Con. Some seminars are the equivalent of months of GMing experience.
– Try a new game or two. Many times, it will be one of the developers of the game running it for you, and they can point out the strengths of the system.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 19, 2008 @ 10:56 am

I’m jealous that your first con experience was GenCon. I played in the SoCal imitation, but there’s no equal for excitement and the sheer number of gamers.

The onsite/offsite sounds like great advice– for my recent vacation [honeymoon actually], it’s was the same choice. A cheap hotel and commute to where you want to be, or pay extra to get time back.

I hope they have the room thing straightened out this year– having to find new locations when you’re already rushing to hit your game sounds painful. Are you headed back this year?

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On May 19, 2008 @ 11:15 am


Yes, not only as a player but also as a GM (which is one of the major points of this series of posts). I have the GenCon bug now!

By the way, if anyone’s interested, I still have a seat available in each of my Thursday and Friday games. Look for “Dead Man’s Hand.” It’s for Victoriana 2e.

#4 Comment By longcoat000 On May 19, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

I’ve never been to GenCon, but I have been to OrcCon / Strategicon in the LA area many times, and have some lessons learned of my own:

1) Stay on-site. Yeah, you may be thinking of saving $20 – 40 per night by staying at a different hotel / motel, but you have to pay for it one way or another. It may be worth it if you’re a young whippersnapper, but I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I like convenience and can actually afford it every now and then. I like being able to play around until midnight or two in the morning, walk 50 feet to an elevator half-asleep, and fall into bed a minute-and-a-half later for six hours of blissful sleep before getting up, showering, and hitting my first event of the day. The time you save going back to a different hotel AND having to wake up early to get to your first event alone is worth it.

2) Yes, shower. And bring enough changes of clothes to last your stay. Please. I really don’t care if you park at the con and sleep in your car. Make friends with someone who has a room and ask if you can rent a shower for $3 the next time they’re going up. Your fellow gamers will thank you.

3) Try something new. Everyone loves to play their favorite games, but I’ve found that the one-shots at cons are usually less satisfying than my usual games with my regular group. So why not use this time to try out a system you’re thinking about buying? Con games are custom-built for this sort of thing, plus you have the advantage of being able to go down to the dealer’s hall or flea-market tables and pick up the system right away if you like it.

4) Try something interesting. Don’t pay attention to the systems. Look for the description of the game to see what gets your inner gnome chewing at the leather straps. If you like the premise and you have a halfway decent GM, you should have fun no matter what kind of dice you’re rolling. My favorite traditional con-RPG was a large Shadowrun game that was a take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I’ll never look at Happy the same way again…

5) Cruise the open gaming area. This is where you’ll usually find the guys pimping out their latest homebrew ideas or doing product testing. This is where I got to playtest the coolest board game ever (it involved several modular mazes and pieces where each piece could move as far as they wanted, but could only make X number of direction changes), had a friend who playtested something called Chaos Chess, which I think ended up becoming Knightmare Chess (and he swiped a copy of the original deck because the playtesters WOULDN’T SELL HIM A COPY when he was tossing money at them), played a fun game where you made your own playing piece out of Play-Dough, and it’s stats were based off of what it looked like, and have consistantly watched (but never played) this huge chariot-racing game that usually begins at 10:00 PM and lasts until two or three in the morning, with everyone yelling, screaming, and generally having more fun than should be legal.

6) Bring a friend or be a friend. Gaming is a social activity, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun when you bring a few of your buddies along for the ride. If you’re ever stuck with some downtime (maybe you’re alone between events, or maybe the cool game you were signed up for got cancelled), don’t be afraid to cruise on down to the open gaming area and say hi to a few people. I’ve met the friendliest people at gaming conventions, and most of them don’t mind opening up a space at their table for someone new. Plus, if you bring someone you know, your room cost just got split in half.

7) Know your budget. Before you go, set aside money for food, and know how much you’ll need for rent later on that month. It’s really easy to be tempted into buying a whole bunch of stuff, especially when you can get it at such a good deal, but (trust me on this) it’s really easy to accidentally spend way too much money on the first day and end up realizing you can’t eat or buy any other products for the remaining three days of the con.

8) Hit the fleamarket tables. I don’t know if they offer them at Gencon, but in LA you can rent tables for about $5 per half-hour and sell anything you want. This is where a lot of people go to sell off older stuff they don’t want, and I’ve found a ton of good deals on books and minis. And the offerings change frequently, so make it a point to cruise by between events if you have the time.

9) Don’t be afraid to haggle in the dealer’s room. I’ve had everything from products offered at half price to free dice to free books tossed into the mix when I’ve been on the fence about a purchase. If it’s something you’re not sure you want, don’t be afraid to put the book down and walk away. Maybe they’ll sweeten the deal by giving you a break, and maybe you’ll end up with having enough money to eat for the rest of your stay.

10) Try a LARP. No, seriously. I know you’re spouting off that whole, “Sitting around a table is fine, but those freaks who dress up really freak me out” line, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it once. It’s not something I regularly do, but it is my fun little con ritual. I’ve only played in the Vampire LARPs (which are only offered late at night, 10 PM or so), so I can’t really comment on what the people with foam swords do. But they’re a hoot if you’re willing to dive in head first and stop caring about what anyone thinks of you. Do you really think you’re going to be seeing any of these people after the con?

11) Bring your own food. Seriously, bring a small ice chest up to your room with the fixens for sandwiches and a case of water. For the price of eating out one night you can eat for the whole weekend. More money for products is always good. Plus, you’ll be able to fix yourself something to eat when midnight rolls around and you realize that all of the restaurants and snack shops in the hotel are closed.

12) Don’t plan on stopping smoking or starting that crash diet within a week or two of con. You don’t need the extra aggrivation of your body’s craving for nicotene or food while you’re getting your game on. Let con be your last hurrah.

13) If you’re going with people you know, be the person handling the money and get it from everyone up front. It’s utterly amazing how many of your friends will forget to pay you back for their share of the hotel room once con is over, or how many people will take the money you give them for the room and spend it in the dealer’s room.

#5 Comment By Lee Hanna On May 20, 2008 @ 10:31 am

I haven’t been to GenCon since ’85, but I live less than 10 miles from Origins, so I can relate. I will echo the ideas to bring snack bars, water bottles or sportsbottles and park a cooler in your room. I’ve always been one of those gamers who can skip a meal if I’m too busy playing– one meal that is. Especially if I’ve got Little Debbies stashed in my pack.

Try to time the dealer room visit so you can go with a friend, especially if it’s someone you’re going to play with at home. If they don’t think that nifty game is such a good idea, it may be hard to convince them to play it later.

Go look at the miniatures room daily, even if you’re not one of those kinds of gamers. The art involved in those is astounding. I’ve seen massive miniature games of the Alamo, of Helm’s Deep (Duke Seifried is da man), and the siege of the Legations of Peiping.

I don’t know if they will be there, but if the Smithee Awards are playing, beg, borrow or steal to get in! It’s a collection of truly awful movies, and you get to vote on which is the worst. They say they travle to different cons, so I suppose they will be there. You will bust a gut laughing! Origins usually falls near our wedding anniversary, and this has been our date for ~12 years, with Subway and Buckeye shakes.

I’m gonna miss both cons this year, so I am sad.