Welcome to the second installment of Gnome Spotlight, where we highlight gamers doing good.

Today I’m excited to share the really cool programs and practices of a convention that consistently gets rave reviews: Big Bad Con. It’s a tabletop and live action gaming convention, boasting a wide variety of RPGs, larps, and card/board games. It’s held in California’s Bay Area each October, where they hold games in traditional conference room spaces and ballrooms, but also rent out dozens of hotel rooms for private gaming, which sounds really cool.

Big Bad Con is Kickstarting NOW and will end its 2017 fundraiser on Thursday, June 22nd.

I spoke with the Steward of Big Bad Con, Sean Nittner, about how BBC has made a really positive atmosphere through the meta-game “Big Bad World,” and about how BBC is working to make its con a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming space.

  • Big Bad Con is a “tabletop gaming convention dedicated to making a safe & welcoming place for all gamers, particularly gamers who are in marginalized & mistreated groups.”
  • You can help by:
    • Attending, and be excellent to one another! Back the Kickstarter to get a badge now, or apply for their scholarship program for financial assistance.
    • Donating to support their programs! You can back the Kickstarter, at a variety of pledge levels (support the scholarship fund, play an online game with big-name designers, or get a box full of swag with Baba Yaga’s Mystery Box). You can also donate directly to Big Bad Con, and in both cases BBC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity, so your donations are tax-deductible.

Big Bad World: Gamifying Being Awesome To Each Other

 When you’re awesome to someone, Mark XP.
The RPG Apocalypse World has proved to be eminently hack-able, with its elegant components such as its core mechanic, Agendas, Principles, and Moves. Big Bad Con must be one of the first to turn this system into a meta-game, however. Attendees can get playbooks that they can “level up” by doing good over the course of the con.

This idea came about when Sean and his team were brainstorming over Big Bad Con’s Community Standards – how could they make their community standards less negative?

“Nathan [Black] realized early on that we have these community standards and things we don’t want people to do (harassment, abuse, intimidation, etc.). I wanted to give people something to do, something to be proactive about. For some folks, it feels like dancing on eggshells. So instead of a list of things you don’t do, how about a list of things you do do.”

“I don’t remember which of us said this, but one of us was like ‘When you’re awesome to someone, Mark XP.'” This is the lingo for gaining experience in Apocalypse World-powered games. Cue mind-explosion animation. “So we just sat there for the next few hours talking about the opposite of microagressions; micro-niceties: pulling up a chair for somebody, introducing someone, welcoming someone to your table, teaching someone how to play a new game.”

And so Big Bad World was born, and further developed by other BBC staff and playtesters.

Principles, Moves, and Marking XP. On one side the playbook lists the Principles that every player/attendee should uphold: Think about the well-being of those around you, Shine the spotlight on your fellow playersOn the other side are a series of actions, these “micro-niceties,” for which players can gain experience (“Mark XP”). Some are universal Basic Moves: help someone be awesome or answer someone’s question about the gameOther moves are playbook-specific; for instance, an Ambassador can mark XP when they help someone find their game or introduce someone to a group of people. An Explorer marks XP when they play a game you’ve never played before, and the Mage marks XP when they teach someone how to play a gameAs you level up, you can turn in your successful playbooks for a shiny pin and the opportunity to work on other playbooks with different roles.

Proactive micro-niceties. The first year Big Bad World was implemented, it was met with great excitement. “These are all things we would love for people to do, and it’s all things people feel like they can do, especially if they’re given explicit permission to do it.” Shy attendees may want to introduce people or pull up a chair for someone, but may not be bold enough to do it unprompted. This meta-game gives them that permission and confidence to take an active role in creating a welcoming environment.

Big Bad World is continuing to grow and improve at BBC, and has already spawned hacks of its own: Flying While Trans by Vera Vartanian (soon to be on DriveThruRPG), and Ettin Con’s Team Player. “I’m just delighted to see people take whatever positive things they want folks to do at their convention to make it more fun for everyone there, and rewarding it. However you do that, that’s cool.”

Diversity, Inclusivity, and Accessibility

Two goals of an inclusive con is getting people there and supporting people once they’re at the con. Apart from Big Bad World, BBC approaches these goals in three interesting ways I want to talk about.

Teen Track: The Family That Games Together Levels Together

In 2016, Big Bad Con tried out a Teen Track of gaming: an entire room of the convention filled with games run by adults and teens. Player spots were prioritized for teens, but filled in with some adults as well. Prior to this, teens weren’t able to attend the con because the staff didn’t feel they could assure parents that teens would encounter only appropriate material for their age level.

 I have a very strong belief in gaming’s ability to teach empathy and allow people to explore things that they wouldn’t feel safe exploring otherwise, and to build bonds between people. 
When I asked Sean about his motivation for the teen track, he said “the selfish reason is that I have a teenager now, and I want them to be able to come to my con! It’s been rough for me because they’ve been around and helping me plan the con; in fact they even named it! We were sitting around the house thinking of what the con should be and we had all these different ideas, and my then 7-year-old said “What about Big Bad Con”?” The name stuck.

Besides Sean’s selfish reason, “the two big reasons were 1) to allow families to attend, and 2) to bring up a new generation of gamer. I have a very strong belief in gaming’s ability to teach empathy and allow people to explore things that they wouldn’t feel safe exploring otherwise, and to build bonds between people. I think that’s fantastic exposure for kids to have.” 

Outreach Program: Getting Local Teens Into Gaming

Big Bad Con opened its doors to teens last year, most of whom had been introduced to tabletop gaming before. This year, the team hopes to bring gaming to new teens with their outreach program. Prior to and after BBC 2017, local GMs and BBC staff will go to teen spaces (schools, libraries) and run games for a classroom of students there.

 What are the barriers to local people coming to the con? 
“My hope with the outreach program is that we can introduce the con to local teenagers in high school, and because we have the scholarship to support them and have the BBC teens track, we can say: ‘Hey, hope you had a great time this afternoon playing games with us. If this is something you’d like to do more of, here’s a convention where you can play games for 3 days straight. And, if you can use some financial assistance, here’s a scholarship program we can help you apply to.'”

“It’s hopefully another piece in the puzzle of making the con more accessible for people, particularly on the awareness and financial axes.”

Better representation. Another motivator for the outreach program is to include a greater diversity of people at the con. “I think we have done a really good job making the con friendly towards women & queer folk. I feel like the area we are failing in, in terms of representation and diversity, is more people of color being at the con. That’s a direct reason for the outreach program.” The BBC staff would like to see better representation of the local demographics at the con: “If you go to any area in the Bay Area, you see tons of black and latinx people, and then you come to the con…” Not so much.

Many of the people of color currently attending the con are coming from outside of the Bay Area, which on one hand is lovely, but on the other hand, Sean says “I think to myself, what are the barriers to local people coming to the con? Part of it is exposure, but then a huge other part of it is money & class divides. It’s very expensive to go to a convention. The con is the cheapest part; the hotel, travel, eating out is really pricey.” Here enters the Big Bad Con scholarship fund.

Scholarship Fund: Supporting Members Of Underrepresented Groups

 There are amazing bonds and connections that are forged at cons that you won’t find at other places. 
The Big Bad Con scholarship fund goes toward the costs of the BBC badge, hotel room, and travel to help “financially challenged women, people of color, disabled, and lgbtqia+ individuals attend the con.” It’s supported by the Kickstarter pledge level “Big Bad Scholarship” which starts at $20, as well as some individual donations. Sean says “It’s simple, there’s not a lot to it really, but it’s one of the things I’m the most proud of that we do at the con.”

Why would you want to support such a thing, even if you’re not attending? “I think there are amazing bonds and connections that are forged at cons that you won’t find at other places. Many of my best friends I’ve met at conventions; many of my best experiences have been at conventions.” There’s a personal satisfaction that comes with helping out as well – “To give people the opportunity to not just play the games, but to make those connections with others is huge. If you have the means to help someone else do that, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. We start the pledge level at $20, but frankly that goes a huge way towards making that kind of connection possible for people.”

Chipping in as a community. There are lots of other cons that have programs similar to this, but it’s very effective. BBC modeled their scholarship fund after Con or Bust, a non-profit that “help[s] fans of color go to SFF cons and be their own awesome selves.” Individuals sometimes run GoFundMes to support their travel to a con, which can also be effective, but on an institutional level, Sean says “I really like the communal nature of “Let’s throw a bunch of money in a pot and let’s see how many people we can get out to the con” And figure out who can room together, how much needs to get covered, to try to get as many people out there as possible.”

So far, the fund has been able to help out everyone who has applied, though not to the level they wish they could support each person. Whether you’re attending BBC or not, consider supporting such a great cause!

Big Bad Con: Kickstarting NOW!

“In today’s world, where I feel like a lot of things are crappy, BBC is one of the things I feel very good about, and that I feel like myself and the staff can really make a difference and a great place for a few days. And in fact we want to extend that to not just be a few days. We have the outreach program, and we have “Big Bad Online”, a pledge level you can back at to play games online with cool designers.”

Consider brightening the gaming world by attending Big Bad Con and supporting it on Kickstarter before it ends in a few days, on Thursday, June 22nd! As of the writing of this article, there are still some REALLY cool pledge levels, such as:

  • Big Bad Scholarship – donate directly to the scholarship fund, starting at just $20.
  • Big Bad Online (currently sold out, though keep checking back!) – For $60, play an online game with a big-name game designer sometime before the con.
  • Immortal Hero – For $100, have a private game room named after you or a cause you’d like to support, which will be displayed on a banner in the room thanking you!
  • Baba Yaga’s Mystery Box (currently only 3 left!) -Get mailed a box of really unique, cool swag! Sean says “A dozen or so contributors are making cool things: some art, some crafty bits. It’s really fun – last year people loved what they got, and this year is way better. This year we recruited artists for custom art!”
  • And “everybody who contributes at all gets put on the big Hall of Heroes!

Thanks so much to Sean Nittner (Twitter) and the Big Bad Con staff for doing awesome, positive things that make this Gnome’s tiny icy heart warm.

Find out more about Big Bad Con:

What do you love abut conventions you attend? What would you love to see in the future? Have any of you gnomes attended Big Bad Con, or too afraid of that big ol’ wolf?