StormCon 2014 – Charleston, SC

Mid-June found myself and my family in sweltering North Charleston, SC for another StormCon, a young and growing gaming con run by a great group of people.  I had fun last year at this con and I fully intended on supporting it again this year.  I signed up to run a good variety of games – 1 RPG, 1 board game, and 1 miniature game.  I was really looking forward to this as a break from real life and a chance to game with some friendly faces – new and old.

One of the primary reasons I like StormCon is the group of people running it. They are solid people that have a good vision, are willing to make changes to improve, and are making an honest effort to improve the experience for each and every gamer. They care about every aspect of the experience – from preregistration to sitting down and gaming. They are also a very independent group and want to make their own mistakes and learn from them. I admire that a lot about them. They are also willing to listen to advice and use it in ways that work for them. They are hard working individuals that are good, grass roots gamers.

The con is young and going through a lot of learning phases. They are trying to work on a system that works for them and their gamers. Again, I can respect that. I can speak to them all day of my experiences and all the work I have put into gaming registration, but it would fall on deaf ears if it’s not a system they could implement or make work for them. So going in, I know to expect the glitches that come from learning some of the same lessons I did when I started doing this nearly 15 years ago.  Honestly, there were some glitches, but nothing I could not get over.

They are also not arrogant in thinking they have this “down to a science” after just a few short years.  They listen to advice when given and fine tune things not only year by year, but also hour by hour.  They are very quick on their feet when any gamer needs help or a change. They are a very service oriented group of guys and girls, and it is a joy to work with them.

2014 meant a new hotel for StormCon.  It was a little more expensive but included an incredible breakfast every morning.  It was a Hilton Garden Inn near the Airport, with a Wendy’s sharing the parking lot, so food options were not far away.  It was also 30 minutes from the beach and across the street from a major outlet center, so my wife and kids had a lot of other options while I gamed.

The hotel itself was very nice.  The rooms were not too small.  The five of us fit fairly comfortably.  They had refrigerators and microwaves in the rooms which made things easier for us too.  The internet was surprisingly fast for a hotel that was full of gamers and at least one wedding party.  The breakfast was top notch.  I had very little complaints about the hotel.  It was well worth the little extra money I spent to stay there.

On the other side to that, though, was the “inside baseball” stuff I heard from the convention managers.  The con was the victim of a lot of turn-over in the hotel sales staff.  They have seen 3 different sales representatives and many aspects of the contract were apparently unclear.  I have seen this happen a lot, and it has happened to cons I have worked with.  It is very hard to maintain consistency in a hotel deal if the hotel can’t keep their employees (which is usually a bad sign in general).  In many cases, despite all your efforts to make sure everything is in writing, things get left out, details are talked about but never written down, and things can be misinterpreted, assumed or simply forgotten.  It’s important to have a detail-oriented and experienced sales person when setting up a con space, and if you don’t have that, you are setting yourself up for some bumps in the road.

Not to say that StormCon set themselves up or that it was their fault in any way.  They had no control over it.  The hotel just could not keep their employees happy.  They know now to get every detail in writing.  Details like rooms hours, any kind of security charge, and restrictions on food in the con space are all very important and affect the experience of a gamer.  StormCon thought they had all that covered but because of the change in hotel sales staff, details apparently slipped through the cracks.

However, this goes back to my earlier praises.  The con staff worked their butts off to make sure whatever glitches the hotel was throwing at them, it was transparent to the gamers.  The only reason I knew about it was because they came to me to vent and get advice.  That is what a good convention staff does – whatever glitches that might happen with the hotel or anything else must be invisible to the convention attendees.  They accomplished that.

Arrival to the con went fairly well.  I got my badge as soon as I arrived around 4 pm on Friday of the con.  There was a decent crowd there already, but I could tell that the big crowd had not arrived yet.  Parking was already becoming a problem, but the staff quickly had a solution for that by working with the hotel to find alternative parking across the street.  This is a bad problem to have but it’s also a good sign that you are going to have good attendance.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was the new gaming registration system they were trying out.  It consisted of a very well-built 2-sided peg board easel with several small clipboards on each side with a game sign-up sheet on each clipboard.  I had considered this kind of system before and, in theory, it should work but I do not think people realize the level of maintenance this kind of thing takes.  It has to make sense to a majority of your attendees and if it doesn’t, then the system falls apart.  Never assume that if it makes sense to you that it will makes sense to them.  Try to make it as stupid proof as you can.

In addition, accuracy is paramount.  It’s not easy keeping things sync’ed between the online tool they were using (Warhorn) and their physical sign up.  This caused issues with my first game (Achtung! Cthulhu) as I had 7 players and 6 characters.  Fortunately, I had a person willing to bow out and allow the two extras, who were a couple, play instead.  I hate that it happened, and this is the kind of thing that does happen if you don’t maintain “the board.”  There was data out of sync somewhere and a gamer got shafted out of a chance to play the game he signed up for. Fortunately, he was gracious about it.

My game went reasonably well, but I still was not able to get to the end.  I was running the Three Kings adventure and trying to fit it into a 4-hour slot and it did not work.  I have some new ideas that will hopefully fix that, however.  By my next con, I hope to have those new changes implemented and ready.

Saturday morning, I found myself playing in a game of Numenera. I have been trying to get a review of this on The Gamer’s Codex with little luck.  I have heard a lot about it and I really wanted to try it out.  The GM was very good with the 3 players he had.  I found the setting to be interesting and the system to be very fluid.  However, I had my own issues with it and am not sure if I would run it myself.  It has nothing to do with the GM as the GM was very good at explaining the setting as well as the system.  It just seemed that the system and the setting both were trying too hard to be gimmicky in their own way.  Overall, though, I would count this as a good con gaming experience.

Another problem that a lot of game registration systems have is a gray area of gaming – table top board or card games.  Some table top gamers just want to sit down and play whatever and not worry about preregistering for games.  Those are usually the light games, family games and card games that are easy to play in 2 to 3 hours.  Meanwhile, you may have other games that need sign ups, need to know when they are going to start and end, and need a little more structure.  Some game masters simply want to know if they have players ahead of time because game set up might take time.  Not an easy thing to deal with because you never know what kind you are dealing with when you are making your schedule.  Communication between the gaming coordinator and the game masters is important here.  My next game is a good example of this potential problem.

My second game was a board game of sorts – classic Aliens board game that I converted to a minis game with some color printing and HorrorClix minis I bought off Ebay.  It’s a game that takes some prep time and not an easy game to just sit down and play.  I need to know if I have players ahead of time and how many.  In whatever game I am playing, to be honest, I prefer to know these things ahead of time. Unfortunately, an assumption was made that I did not need a sign-up and it was left off the sign-up board.  I was on the preregistration on Warhorn but not on site.  It was a little disconcerting to find that out 30 minutes before the game was to start.  Needless to say, I did not get enough players to play and my game did not make.  I am not the type to set up my game and hope to get players.  I really want to have the players signed up and ready before I get started.  I probably did not make that clear and I take the blame for that.

Regardless though, I was fine with my game not making.  I had a late night before and an early morning playing Numenera.  So the break did me good.  My next game was at 7 pm, so I took the time to relax, talk “shop” with folks, browse the dealer room and experience the atmosphere of the con.

That evening, I had the great pleasure of playing in a Savage World setting written by a couple of great guys – Battle for Oz.  This is a phenomenal setting from Kickstarter by a couple of guys out of Raleigh, NC.  They premiered at StormCon last year and continue to run demos all over the region.  They were also at MACE 2013 and will be at MACE 2014. This is an incredible setting, based on the world created by L. Frank Baum.  It is the land of Oz with a dark and more serious twist.  The world has been taken over by a dark lord and the players are resistance, trying to fight back against it.  There are some very familiar fantasy aspects to it but also some very unique ones as well.  I had a lot of fun with this, in part because it is a cool setting but also in part because the players were phenomenal. I played an anthropomorphic wolf (they did not mention those in “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”) and he was a bad-ass!  This made my day and the con.

Stay tuned for a review of Savage Worlds Battle for Oz soon on The Gamer’s Codex.

Sundays are usually slow and I did not expect my game to make on Sunday.  Sunday was to be my miniature game, and I signed up to run Axis & Allies.  Being an older game, I figured that would be another reason I did not get players.  I was wrong.  I was met with three players and I was more than happy to sit down and game with them.  It was awesome to get to play the game again because it is a good game.  Ending on a good note like that really helps with the con experience.

One aspect that I think I am going to totally steal from them is their swap meet.  I have been wanting to do something like this for a while.  People can bring their old games and sell them like a garage sale.  It was a great place to find some unique deals.  I think you might be seeing something like this at MACE.

For their charity auction, they had a similar set up to what they had last year.  They had several donations setup with boxes of tickets for each.  People bought tickets, placing them in the item boxes they wanted a chance to win.  On Sunday, they held a raffle.  All money went to a good charity and everyone that won, went home happy.

Along with these, they had a set of board games available on a play-to-win basis.  Every player of one of these games gets their name written down on a list for a chance to win the game itself.  Of course, they have to play it first.  This is a new phenomena that is hitting the smaller cons and StormCon handles it well.  MACE is doing this as well as many smaller publishers that want to do more than just donate the game to a con library that might occur just once a year.  They want to give the game to the public and get it out there.  It’s a good concept as long as you have people to mange it.

Overall, StormCon was a great experience this year.  Early numbers indicate that it had a little over 20% growth this year, which is a very manageable and encouraging growth.  They are on track to be a great con as long as they learn from the minor mistakes and glitches.  Lessons I would pull away from this are (a) do not treat all games the same.  Work on a system that can accommodate all types of registration and visibility needs; (b) communication with the game masters is very important but that goes both ways; (c) be careful with hotel contracts and any details in said contract.

In truth, they are going through many of the similar things we went through 15 years ago when MACE started.  They are listening to good advice and finding ways to make it work for them.  They have a lot of promise and passion about it and continue to grow and focus on the right areas to make it a good experience.  I really want to try and make it to this con every year, funds allowing, just to see how they evolve and grow.