Tuesday, February 7, 2023

TTRPG Conventions Tips and Tricks

 So you've hemmed and hawed and stewed and thought about one of the oldest questions in tabletop roleplaying: Should I attend an RPG convention?

There's a lot behind that one question and a lot of reasons that answering the questions behind the question can lead to a lot of worry and analysis paralysis. By the time you think you've thought it through, the opportunity to register has come and gone and soon, with it, yet another unattended convention. I know. I've been there. It can be daunting. I'm here to help.

I'm no pro at attending conventions. All told I believe I've attended 18 or so? That's a lot less than many. Some of that has to do with budget, but mostly, for me, it's about time. I have to take days off work to enjoy my favorite conventions, so I burn, in total, about a week's worth of PTO every year on cons. You might not have that luxury. So I'm hoping that what I share here will at least answer a few questions and give you more information so that you can make a good decision of what to do with your valuable time. I honestly wish I had a "coach" to guide me through my first couple of cons, someone who knew the ropes. And I did have people help me along the way . . . a bit. Some of the things I've learned just came through making mistakes and learning from them and maybe getting lucky a time or two along the way. So this is my way of paying it forward.

Keep in mind that this is drawn purely from my own experience. Your experience will likely be different. A gaming con can be a big event, with lots of moving parts. No two cons are ever the same, and that's good! But I hope that my experiences can help to alleviate some fears and might even entice you to join us con-goers.

Why should I go to a gaming convention?

1. Sure, you play elf games. But do you play human games about elves? Going to a gaming convention is an immersive human experience. Be prepared to meet new people, but don't think you have to be an extrovert to fit in. Au contraire, I am an introvert by nature. I recharge on my own, thank you very much. Being around people saps me of energy. At the same time, I'm energized by gaming. I have to admit, it takes a LOT out of me to run a game. But it puts a lot into me to play a game. It's not that I dislike running games, I like running them, but I am always a spent shadow of myself by the time the session is done. So I don't run a lot of games at conventions. One, maybe. Two max. I've run two games twice and it took a full afternoon just to recover. Thankfully, I played games at tables with others who "fed" me. I developed friendships at the table. Real, honest to goodness friendships with people who care about me, who I visit, when possible, outside of gaming. I'll never forget at Garycon back in 2018, one month after my mother passed away (and one month before, unbeknownst to me, my father would pass away) a friend I had met gaming gave me a little tap on the arm and said "hey, man, I'm really sorry to hear about your mother". That moment touched me deeply. I'll never forget that simple act. That would not have happened if it wasn't for attending gaming conventions and developing a friendship with that individual. More on him later.

2. I've developed a standing wish-list for gaming conventions. Whenever possible, I want to play 1 game of DCCRPG/MCCRPG, 1 game of Call of Cthulhu (preferably with the wonderful crew of You Too Can Cthulhu), 1 miniatures game, and 1 game in a system I've never played before. That last one is key, and I've been able to do this at every major con I've attended. I've been introduced to games that I might never have had the chance to play before, games I read about in gaming magazines way back in the '80s, games I had heard of but couldn't play because of proximity to other people playing those games, obscure games, games I promised myself I would play years ago. Some of them lived up to and even exceeded expectations (Empire of the Petal Throne, I'm looking at you), some were frankly disappointments, but I always learned something by trying out a new system and in a couple of case, new doors were opened that I have stepped into wholeheartedly. As I said earlier, I always try to squeeze in at least one miniatures game. I have not found one I didn't love. But I can't afford to just buy gobs of miniatures. So I let gamemasters/judges at cons do it for me. I consider some of the money I pay to attend cons as a "rental fee" for other peoples minis. 

3. As I kid back in the late '70s and early '80s, I idolized game designers. I couldn't afford to make the trip to Lake Geneva to meet Gary Gygax, but I really wanted to. Another one who I really wanted to meet was Marc Miller, designer of Traveller. While I never got to meet GG (though I lived only an hour from Lake Geneva for the last decade of his life), I did get to meet and play Traveller with Marc Miller at Garycon which, ironically, I supposed, is a convention formed after the death of Gary Gygax in 2008. I found Marc an incredibly nice, humble person who paid close attention to each of his players, whom he only knew when they showed up at the table. I admit I fanboyed a bit and told him that I'd been waiting to play at his table since I was 12 years old, and that he did not disappoint. He signed my The Traveller Book and gave me a "nobility" card. It was a great moment. Last year, I was signed up for his Advanced Traveller seminar at Gameholecon, but, alas, he had just spent his strength at an all-Traveller convention a week or two before and had to cancel. I'm hoping to catch that seminar again sometime soon. 

I also had the distinct privilege of playing the AD&D Rogues Gallery "personality" Lassiviren the Dark at none other than Al Hammack's own table. It was an all-evil party of Greyhawk PCs of evil alignment. Hammack had played Lassiviren in Gary Gygax's Greyhawk campaign, and here I was, at his table, playing his character! Now, one of the stupid magic users decided to cast a lightning bolt at a devil prince, which bounced around the room (did I mention stupid?) and hit the infamous assassin, wiping him out. 

I've met many RPG "celebrities" (very few of whom claim the title of "celebrity" - we gamers seem to be a mostly humble bunch), some of whom I didn't really like (I won't mention the name, but if I did, you know him and have heard of him a LOT), and some of whom have become close friends. You'll have the same chance to meet these men and women at cons. It might be intimidating, but screw up your courage and just go introduce yourself. I guarantee that 99.9% of them will be glad to meet you and speak with you. Just remember that they don't necessarily remember all the details of things they've done and written that you might remember, and that they might be on the way to some important engagement that might cut the conversation short. Be cool, and they'll be cool (except that one guy).

4. Think your FLGS (Friendly Local Gaming Store) is great? You're probably right. But in terms of sheer quantity of gaming stuff to see in person and purchase from the makers (who are usually more than glad to sign the book/poster/thing you purchase), you cannot beat a gaming convention. Think of it as that market your characters meander through, looking for that perfect sword, suit of armor, or herbal mixture. It's like that, but with dice, books, t-shirts, dice towers, and lots and lots of cool fantasy art. 

5. You won't find more RPG-specific art than at a con. I've been able to meet and shake hands with and, most importantly BUY something from artists whose work I have admired for decades, as well as some newly-discovered artists whom I'd never even heard of. One word of caution: don't ask an artist if they will do something for you without paying them. They need your support, even if it's just in buying a $5 decal or a bookmark or something. They are professionals. Be professional. Don't get me wrong - they love gaming and art and they want to talk gaming and art. But buy what you can. Support them!

How Do I Do It?

1. First rule, try not to be intimidated. Yeah, there are some people who are jerks in the gaming community. But by and large, we are a very friendly bunch. We want to have fun together, and we want to help people have fun together. No one's going to grade your "performance," especially as a player. As a GM, sure, people will judge you. That's built in to leading any group of people. But as a player, the GM, in all likelihood, really wants to help you. In my experience, most con table require no experience in the game being played, or even in gaming at all. And I've noted that at every con game I've been in where a rank beginner is playing, not only the GM, but someone at the table WANTS to help them have fun and understand the game! Don't worry about making mistakes. These are games of the imagination with some semblance of loose structure in the form of rules. Everyone at the table, including the GM, makes mistakes. You will, too. Embrace it as a learning opportunity that allows you to help the next beginner at your table who needs help. Having gone through the same process of learning from errors, you can be an invaluable help to them. Pay it forward!

2. In terms of mechanics of most cons: Yes, you do need a stinking badge. Typically there will be a tiered system of badges (Gold, then Silver, for example) where the more you pay, the earlier you get to register for games. There may be swag incentives for buying the more expensive tickets, too. If you, like me, buy the lower tier ticket, be prepared to miss out on the opportunity to play the most desirable games. The gold ticket people often get those slots before you will - indeed, you pay to play. I don't like it, but that's the way it is. 

3. Don't overplan. Gaps are good. I would recommend leaving plenty of space in between games to eat, use the bathroom, take a nap, and, most importantly, play games that are not on the formal con schedule. In fact some of the best games I've played and run have been "off books" - a spontaneous game in a lobby or an unused room or even in the hallway. First time I played Runequest was in an off-the-books game in the convention center hallway sitting on a pair of benches in a nook where the landline pay phones were. And it was awesome! Some con-goers who have a room will invite others (people they know) to come play a game there. You might be invited to a hotel room game by someone you just met that day at an earlier table. Happened to me, and, again, it was awesome! The great thing about off-books games is that the GM is often running a system that they didn't think would be well-received or that they just didn't want to "perform" in public. The Runequest game, by the way, we played because RQ creator Greg Stafford had just passed away, and someone I had met at the con that day wanted to run a tribute game in his memory. Amazing.

4. After hours games are the best. Don't count on getting much sleep. I think I average about five hours of sleep a night during cons. Some of my favorite, most memorable games have been played at "Stupid O'Clock". Yeah, everyone's a little punch-drunk and rummy from lack of sleep, which makes for a lot of craziness in the game. Crazy stuff happens at night at a gaming convention, when everyone's relaxed and just a little kooky. I have so many memories of late night games that I can't even list them all. I ran "Bunnies and Burnouts" late one night (think Watership Down, but the bunnies were able to kill the band High On Fire and steal their tour bus, drive it into a downtown high-school science fair and cause a small nuclear explosion), I've played Mork Borg in the grim dead of night, I've seen Fetal Kanye West shot in the face with a Bazooka wielded by an evil Pope, I've played an 8th level (!) DCC game with tyrannosaurs whose forelimbs had been replaced with chainsaws - and all of this made complete SENSE at the time. Stupid O'Clock is the BEST time for gaming at a con! Oh, and none of these games are on-books (though you can find on-books games that start at 9 and go to midnight, if you like).

5. Find a forbidden place. This is one of my favorite "secrets" and it will probably get me in trouble. As your walking through the convention center, just check to see if "that door" is open. Then invite some friends in for a quick game in the mechanicals room. Or, see that hotel room with no door on it where they're refurbishing the room? It's 11 at night. No one's going to come by. Go on in and play something there. Just be careful not to touch any exposed wires.

Like I said, I'm probably going to get in trouble for suggesting this. But trust me, it's worth it.

Sometimes it's helpful to just ask a facility's staff member or janitor if they can let you in to an otherwise "forbidden" room. People love to be naughty. But if you get caught, don't rat out the janitor. That's just uncool.

6. Take care of yourself. Sleeps out the window, but take a cat nap between games, if you can. Be sure to hydrate! Drink lots of water (and know where the nearest bathrooms are). Be sure to eat. I've gone for long stretches forgetting to eat, then wondering why I'm getting cranky. But really, drink water - lots of water!!! Also, step outside. Seriously. Get some fresh air. Even if it's a few seconds in the dead of winter in Wisconsin - get outside for a few minutes. You need to breathe. Another thing: scout the bathrooms. The proportion of bathrooms versus people is likely WAY too low. Those places are going to get trashed over the course of the convention, so know where ALL the bathrooms are. Last year at a convention that will go un-named, I sat in a stall that was fairly clean, full of TP, good to go. In the stall to my left, I could hear another person doing his business. I heard that familiar clatter from the TP dispenser that one always hears in a public bathroom. The clatter got more and more frantic, then spilled into complete panic, followed by "OH DEAR GOD!" - I hope that guy isn't reading this because I stifled a laugh, finished my business, and abandoned that poor soul. Hopefully he made it over to my stall, which was amply stocked with TP. I didn't stick around to find out. I promptly evacuated. It wasn't my finest hour.

What Cons Should I Go To? What Do You Recommend?

1. This might surprise people, but I have never been to Gencon, so I can't really speak about it. One of these years I'll get there at least once. But the idea of 60K sweaty nerds is not appealing. Even if I had been, I wouldn't try to tackle that one in this paragraph. I remember when I was in grad school I had a graduate seminar on Genocide. Charming topic, let me tell you. Every day we walked out of that class feeling like there was little hope for humanity. However, we never, and I mean NEVER tackled the Holocaust. It was just too big of a subject. And, given the evil in the world, we had plenty to talk about in that class without mentioning the worst of the worst. My point, poorly made, is that Gencon is too big to be tackled in a paragraph. It's its own thing. I'd love to hear about others' experiences in the comments, however. 

2. Garycon, which takes place in the spring in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, is probably my favorite con in terms of who I see there and the mix of games. You'll find a lot of "old school" games there, as well as a few newer games (some of which really hew to an "old school" feel - Mothership, for example, or Dungeon Crawl Classics). It was hear I sat down at Marc Miller's table. I don't know the exact numbers, but I think attendance is somewhere between 1-3K people. Here you'll find a fair amount of after-hours games going on, and I'm usually in one or more over the course of the witching hour. It's at Geneva Commons, which used to be the Playboy Club years ago. It's got a lot of character, and the lobby is very comfy. Food at the restaurant is pretty decent. Now, I will say that I've encountered a fair amount of speed bumps there. One year the event registration system completely collapsed and a lot of people did not get their choice of games, even though they were ready literally at the second event registration opened. Then I got the song and dance that "hey, we're just amateurs here, we don't make any money." Utter BS. I know how much I paid and I know how many people were attending that year. They could have hired a consultant who knew what the heck they were doing, but they skimped and everything came crashing down. They've improved by moving to tabletop events, but I'm still pretty bitter about that one. I've also seen several issues with tables being double booked, though not this past year. All that said, it is a great time, with great people, and I now that Luke Gygax, who runs the thing, is responsive and has made a LOT of improvements over time. It's just going to take a while to lose the sting of past years. Anyway, I do love the old school feel there. One year, they had the original painting from the 1st edition DMG on display, along with all the original little brown D&D books, as well as an original 1st edition copy of Empire of the Petal Throne, all just sitting out at a table for you to look at. I thought "this is incredible - here are books and a painting that are worth literally thousands of dollars, out in the open and everyone who comes by to look a this table on the side of one of the gamerooms is respectful and knows better than to touch, even though none of this is under glass or guard." Made me proud to be a gamer. And if it's your first time at Garycon, be sure to take a moment to pay your respects. Out in the main hallway upstairs you'll find a chair and desk with a DM screen and Gary's original Hawaiian shirt that he wore while DMing, along with a picture and placard dedicated to him. I honestly cried the first time I saw it. Real tears. It was touching. Go pay your respects.

3. Gameholecon takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, each autumn. When I lived in Madison, I literally walked to this con, as the Alliant Energy Center in which it takes place was about a 30 minute walk from my house. The Alliant Center is, well, a convention center. It's not nearly as cozy as the old Playboy Club in Lake Geneva. But it is extremely well-organized and run. Volunteers are pleasant and helpful, and the whole operation just hums. You'll find a lot of old-school RPGing happening here, but you'll also see more contemporary systems like Savage Worlds, Numenera, and so forth. the D&D Adventurers' League gets its own room, and there is a Magic The Gathering con-within a con there, as well. Food is adequate inside, but if you go outside, there's bound to be three or four food carts, which is where you really want to get your food, trust me. The convention center is also attached to the Clarion Suites, which used to be more for open gaming, but has been encroached on with on-books games as Gameholecon has expanded. Overall, there's a more formal feel to Gameholecon than to Garycon, but I think this has to do with the Alliant Center shutting its doors at night, whereas Geneval Commons, as far as I can tell, is pretty much open, at least in the hallways and lobby, 24/7. 

4. If meeting in person isn't your thing, for whatever reason, there are virtual cons available that are a lot of fun. The Cyclops series of virtual cons, run by Goodman Games, is a great example of what a virtual con can be. I've attended a couple and rather enjoyed myself. Now, there is a caveat: because I had met many of the people I played with in person at Garycon and Gameholecon, there was a much more personal connection. However, I've played in virtual cons with total strangers and enjoyed the heck out of myself. During the height of covid, for example, Garycon and Gameholecon went fully virtual. I was able to play MERP, which I had wanted to play since I was a teenager, and having that game online was actually really helpful, as the GM had plugged all kinds of algorithms into Roll20 such that one did not need to go through the convoluted math inherent in that game. The computer did all the crunching for us, and having looked at the rules a few times, I can tell you that the game would have been sluggish were it not for our automagic calculations. Note also that both Garycon and Gameholecon have a virtual element, so be careful when choosing events that you choose the right type. I accidentally signed up for a virtual game last year for Gameholecon, but thankfully found my error a few weeks before the con. So I bowed out of that and let someone else take the slot, since I was attending physically. 

5. Sometimes, you'll find gaming conventions that are not gaming conventions. For example, a few years ago, one of our local science fiction conventions, Oddcon, added a game element. Sessions were small, with very few people, but I was able to game with a couple of noteworthy people in the DCC community that I knew and we introduced a few total strangers to the game and had a great time. So keep your eyes on other, more local conventions that might not advertise their game aspect well. You might be surprised!

6. During the height (or lows) of Covid, I became convinced that if the epidemic continued at the same pace, the larger cons would break up as people created and ran private or invite-only cons. I had hopes to do this myself, but when the huge victorian house I tried to buy fell through (long story), my hopes were dashed. I fully intended to run Call of Cthulhu games for around 50 people, but, alas, it wasn't to be. I still have dreams of running something in my back yard one summer. Larry Hamilton ran a con out of his garage the year before last, I think, and I came within a hairs-breadth of attending, but wasn't able to make it. I still regret that. I believe he had something like 15 people in attendance and he literally held it in his garage. Sounds perfect to me. This past week, I attended a private con put on by a fantasy artist whose work you've likely seen (especially if you play DCC/MCC). It was a small gathering - nine people at the height of it. I saw people I haven't seen for many years there, which was awesome. Given the crew there, was absolutely insane. We played DCC, of course, several rounds of The Red Dragon Inn, TMNT (my first time! We played skater camels!), and a game in which everyone rolled up characters from a different system and all played in the same game (it worked, but I'm not sure how - I had a Classic Traveller ex-Marine, if you must know), and lots and lots of conversation about game theory and gaming in general. It's like getting together with your friends for D&D at your parents' place, except it's bigger, you're bigger, and it's at your friend's place, not his parents place. Without responsible adults there, I guarantee hijinks ensue. And that's why we're all in this anyway, right? There will be another one in September, and I am going to do everything I can to make it there.


Well, I hope this is at least nominally helpful to you. I'm certain many people will comment and tell me that I'm wrong . . . and, to be honest, they're right. Con-going is a very personal experience. I'm certain I've forgotten key points of advice, my critique might be harsh in some regards, and I might be wearing rose-colored glasses in others. If you've been to cons, I'd love to read about it in the comments, good or bad. Hopefully this can become a sort of clearing house for people's thoughts on conventions (or reasons why they don't want to think about them). Lastly, I'm biased. I love the few cons I attend. I've made lifelong friends through them and played some of the most memorable games of my life in them, as well (ask me sometime about my first experience playing Star Frontiers at Garycon. You probably won't believe me even if I told you what happened in that game.). So I encourage you to screw up your courage and give it a shot. And if you do so and run into me at a con, I'd love to meet you. 

See you at the table!


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