This Wednesday, I will be loading up my car with suitcases, game bags, a variety of beverages, snacks and three friends (including fellow Rogue Princess Alana). We’re heading down to Columbus, Ohio for Origins Game Fair. Origins is the first of the two ‘big’ conventions I try to make it to every year, the second being GenCon in August. The closer we get to that moment of loading up the car and hitting the road, the more excited I get. I LOVE gaming conventions.
CON!!! (Shouted in my best Shatner impersonation…)
Pretty much every hobby in existence has some sort of gathering to celebrate and share the enthusiasm for that subject with like-minded people. It can all seem a little strange to people on the outside, but if you’re one of those like-minded people, you quickly realize you’ve found your tribe. If you’re into something unusual, like say old carnival calliopes for example, it can be reassuring to find people who are just as passionate about that rare subject as you are. Gaming isn’t really that unusual anymore, but it’s still a hobby that can create confused expressions on those unfamiliar with it. When I go to a convention, there is always a moment where I have to stop and stand in the crowd and just take it all in. These are the people who get it, the people I don’t need to explain or justify my interests and passions to. There’s a reason one of GenCon’s slogans in the past has been ‘Welcome Home’.
I am not exactly an industry insider, so I can’t exactly call myself a ‘professional con attendee’, but I do attend at least six conventions throughout the year: Running GAGG, SimCon, UBCon, Origins, GenCon, and Con on the Cob. There are some others I would like to try and get to, but that’s always a matter of time and money. The events I have attended range from small college cons to the ‘take-over-the-city’ monster that is GenCon, so I do have a breadth of experience when it comes to gaming cons.
Conventions may not be for everyone, but they are a truly vital part of the hobby. In addition to gathering people together to play and talk about games, they also offer exposure to new games and ideas and, probably most importantly, allow gamers to network with one another. I recommend that anyone who enjoys gaming – roleplaying games, board games, LARPs, CCGs, video games, and so on – should attend one of the big conventions at least once during their gaming life. GenCon can be an overwhelming experience, but it shows you just how popular the hobby is. If over 40,000 gamers descending on the streets of Indianapolis every August aren’t proof enough, just head into the dealers hall and take in all the stuff being marketed directly at YOU.
So, whether you’re interested in trying out a small, local con or want to make the pilgrimage to one of the big ones, here are some thoughts on things to keep in mind:
If you’re lucky, there may be a convention in your home town, or at least one close by. Some college and university game clubs put on conventions or game days that are open to the public every year. There are also a plethora of small and mid-sized private cons out there. For both, it’s just a matter of finding them and knowing where and when they’re going to happen. Local cons are a fantastic way to meet more gamers in your area and expand your circle of gaming friends. One of the core members of my Saturday gaming group was someone I got to know at a Running GAGG several years ago.
For anything that’s not local, you’re going to have to deal with travel and arranging sleeping accommodations. If you’re lucky to have a friend in the area, it can be a good excuse to go crash on their couch and drag them to the convention too. Otherwise, it’s time to find a hotel. Most conventions, small or large, will arrange some sort of discount with one or more local hotels. The larger the convention, the more hotels they’ll have arrangements with. Any such deals are usually listed right on the website for the convention and include the information you’ll need to give the hotel to get the discount.
As a caution, hotels will fill up, so it’s best to try and book as far in advance as possible. Origins always has an agreement with many of the downtown Columbus hotels, but some are so popular that they get booked again for the next year as soon as the con is over. It’s not unusual for the Drury Inn to be completely booked over eleven months in advance. GenCon’s housing system requires that you already have purchased a badge for the event to even be eligible to take part in their reserved hotel blocks throughout Indianapolis. It’s not unusual to see ALL the housing blocks get sold out within a day of housing registration going live and that’s often six to seven months before the convention.
Where a convention is held can make or break the entire event. There’s a great deal of flexibility in what can work, but if something is off, it can really ruin the experience for an attendee and hurt the chances of the convention succeeding in the future. This really isn’t something the attendees have control over, but it is something to be aware of. I have seen at least one convention die in part because the organizers didn’t think having the right space was that important.
Most college conventions will be held somewhere on campus, often in the student union. They try to have a centralized location for the registration desk, open gaming, and any vendors they’ve brought in, but games often get shuffled off to classrooms in other buildings on campus. Hanging out in a college classroom can be an amusing experience for those of us that last attended college in an earlier decade (Shh. I’m not THAT old).
Mid-sized and larger cons are usually held in actual convention centers or the conference space provided at some of the larger hotels. You’ll often have multiple games going on in the same room, which can create some noise issues, but does also provide excitement as you see other games in progress. For the really big cons, events may take place in multiple buildings. GenCon makes use of the space at many of the neighboring hotels, so it’s not unusual to have games all over downtown; there can be close to a mile between some locations. Bring your walking shoes.
Regardless of where the con is being held, getting your hands on a map of the area can be a lifesaver. Whether it’s an unfamiliar college campus or a convention spread out over a major city, having an idea of where you’re going is really important. I’ve never attended a con where the staff wasn’t willing to help with directions on how to get to an event, but having a map can make the difference between getting to an event on time and losing your spot because you’re too late.
There are people who go to gaming conventions just to hit the dealers hall or hang out with friends, but the thing that brings us all together in the first place are the games. For me, it’s a chance to play things I don’t often get to play or to try out new games. Ultimately, it’s a chance to play as many games as you’re able or willing to fit in over several days.
Smaller cons, of course, have a smaller selection of games to play. With fewer attendees there are fewer people running games. This doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of opportunities to game, just that the selection of what’s available may be a little slimmer. The upside is that the staff is usually more aware of what is going on and can help find open games. Most of the smaller cons I attend have an area where you can sign out board games to try with friends or even start playing with complete strangers. Another benefit of smaller cons is that it’s a good place to try your hand at running a game at a convention. Running for strangers is always a little more intimidating than running for friends, but doing it at a small, local con is a good way to get accustomed to the idea. There’s less pressure and the convention organizers are usually delighted to have new people submit events to the schedule.
The larger conventions have events going on almost 24/7. Origins had close to 3800 events listed in their event spreadsheet this year when it was released at the beginning of May. This doesn’t even take into account all the demos in the dealers hall or even the areas where you can just walk in and play a pick-up game. If you can’t find something to do, you’re just not trying hard enough. The only issue you may run into is that it can be more difficult to get specific events. When you have several thousand attendees and each RPG event has only eight slots, it’s not unusual to have a game sell out within a short time of event registration opening. The Dresden Files RPG has been out for close to four years and I have NEVER been able to get into an event at Origins or GenCon.
GenCon can be especially frustrating with event registration. The moment event registration went live I submitted my wish list for processing. It was about 2000th in line and by the time it was finally processed, only one of my first choice events was still available. I’m not sure what they could do differently, but every year it seems to get more and more frustrating to try and get specific events. There is a silver lining, though. There are still plenty of events to sign up for and you may discover other awesome games you may not have otherwise tried. Plenty of talented GMs are out there running new or obscure games.
As a word of caution, keep in mind how tightly you schedule yourself for the convention. While it is completely possible to schedule yourself for events back-to-back to get in as much gaming as possible, you may want to leave some breaks in your schedule for a variety of reasons. While some people are only there for the gaming, having some open time for spontaneous pick-up games, wandering the dealers hall or other areas of the convention, or even just time to enjoy dinner and/or drinks with friends can really enhance the experience.
Speaking of friends… I mentioned earlier that going to a convention is like finding your tribe. Even though gaming has become more well-known and less of a fringe hobby, there’s still this sense of relief and elation at finding yourself among dozens to thousands of people who get it. Throughout the conventions I’ve attended over the last several years, I’ve met many incredible and creative people and made good friends I look forward to seeing each year. This blog is actually the result of some of those convention-born friendships; Alana, Caitlin, Lisa, and Margaret wouldn’t have come into my life if I hadn’t met them at Running GAGG.
This isn’t to say that arriving at a convention is going to be some magical musical number from a Broadway show where everyone is blissfully coordinated and sings in harmony at the drop of a hat. Just because we’re all gamers doesn’t mean we all like the same things, and even among the individual sub-categories of the hobby, there are different play-styles that don’t necessarily mix well. There may occasionally be moments of frustration when you sit at a table with an event that doesn’t live up to expectations or there are other players that get on your nerves.
In addition, while there are plenty of awesome, amazing people to meet and get to know, it’s still possible to run into the few bad apples that are out there. Most gamers are folks with average and above levels of social skills, but there are still a handful of gamers who haven’t gotten the memo and live up to those old, awkward stereotypes. Whether it’s not realizing they really do need to bathe regularly, a lack of social skills, or generally obnoxious behavior, it is possible to run into someone that is less than pleasant to spend time with. The key point to remember is that they really are the exception to the rule. Don’t let an unpleasant person ruin your convention experience. There are far more awesome people to meet than there are assholes.
(And if someone goes from being annoying to actually harassing you or someone else, report them to the convention staff and security. They don’t want that jerk there anymore than you do.)
There’s so much more I could continue to babble on about regarding conventions, but I think I’ve covered some of the major basics and I really should start packing. See you at Origins!