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Beginners Guide to Gaming Conventions

In 1989, I attended my first fandom convention – Dragon Con in Atlanta.  It was an amazing spectacle of fans, dealers, and everything about sci-fi, fantasy and horror that you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.  It was incredible.  I didn’t even know that there was gaming going on. I later attended other Cons and discovered that they did have gaming.  It took a few more years of just attending cons, but then I finally got involved and now have been  gaming coordinator for several  conventions through the years.

Since I have been working for cons, I have seen con-attendees of all types.  Newbies are usually pretty overwhelmed and intimidated by all that is available and approach everything timidly.  Sometimes the con does not help with badly written programs or a cliquish type of atmosphere.  I feel that if a newbie was a little more prepared, a convention environment would be less intimidating and easier to get involved with.

Gaming Convention vs. Convention Gaming

It’s important that all gamers recognize one thing – not all fans of sci-fi are gamers AND not all gamers are sci-fi fans.  This is why the distinction between gaming conventions and gaming at a general sci-fi/fand0m convention is important.

One important word to learn as you enter the convention-going arena is Fandom.  This is a general term that covers all fans of sci-fi, fantasy, and/or horror of all types – collectively called sci-fi or speculative fiction. You’d be amazed at the things people are fans of.

General science fiction conventions were born out of this collective fan base.  These types of cons usually include gaming, but gaming is not always the primary focus.  Many other sci-fi related events appear on the program and appeal to the non-gamers or the more broad-based fan.  Some gamers are also fans and find it hard to game while at the same time attend the panels and events they like.  It’s a hard choice to make sometimes when you are staring at a program, realizing you can’t be in two places at once, even though you want to be.

For these cons, however, the program is the key.  Usually, the game schedule will appear in the program along with the rest of the events, so a gamer that is a fan can at least map out the games he wants to play and the other events that he wants to attend.  If the programming director is smart, they will schedule key events between gaming breaks to allow for the maximum attendance.

In the cases where your time is a premium, be very strategic about your eating times.  You might even forget that you need sustenance with all that you want to do.  You might skip a meal here or there but be sure to schedule time to eat at least once or twice a day.

Gaming Convention – A gaming convention is just that – nothing but gaming, gaming related panels, and dealers. Pure sci-fi fans are going to be bored here.  There are at least two major gaming cons in the US – Origins and GenCon.  They are the “Mecca” to gamers.  Here, the game schedule IS the program.  The bigger the con, the more complex the schedule is.

The drawback to these larger cons is that most games at a larger con cost something to play.  It’s usually not much – $2 or $3.  In some cases, however, like in Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games, it can get expensive.  This money is usually used to offset the cost of prizes, supplies, and other costs to put on the event, but some gamers are opposed to the pay-to-play aspect of larger cons.

Smaller gaming cons can be satisfying to many gamers because they can usually be found more close to home and are a good way to meet area gamers in your state or neighboring state. These “grassroots” cons usually have a lot of heart in them and are a lot more personal to the attendee.  Most games at these cons are usually free (with LARPs sometimes being the exception).

Convention Gaming – Gaming at science fiction conventions is usually set in a specific area in the con.  Activity either happens around that area or separates from that area depending on the size of the Con.  What a gamer has to realize and respect in these situations is that there are a lot of fans involved with this con and many of them do not game.  It is sometimes a shock to a gamer when he realizes that not all fans are gamers. I know it was for me.  I couldn’t imagine a fan not wanting to totally immerse themselves in the world that they are such big fans of, but alas, there are.

A Gamers Glossary to Conventions

CCG – Collectible Card Games

Gaming Coordinator – The guy in charge of gaming at a con.  Larger cons divide their gaming staff by departments.  Also sometimes called Gaming Director or Gaming Manager.

Gaming Registration – The area within the convention space where the game schedules are available and game sign-up is possible.

Game Library – Some cons have a specific area set aside where stacks of games are made available to play.  The key is finding someone that knows how to play.  Be respectful of these games because they are sometimes part of someone’s personal library.

LARP – Live Action Role Playing.  One of the most popular is Mind’s Eye Theater’s World of Darkness LARP rules based on White Wolf’s World of Darkness.

LFR, LA, LD, LG – These are various RPGA Living campaigns.

ModeratorGM, Game Master, Judge, Warlord – all names for the same guy, the guy in charge of the game.

Networked Games, Living Campaigns, Organized Play – All these terms apply to RPGs, mainly.  The Role Playing Gamers Association is the classic example of a networked game.  No, that’s not another version of EverQuest.  It is an organization that organizes campaigns nationwide that hundred upon thousands of players play in, collectively experience and collectively effect.

PFS – Pathfinder Society. Since the onset of Pathfinder, the demand for an organized play campaign gave birth to the PFS – Pathfinder Society.  This is the RPGA equivalent to Pathfinder, but there are many subtle differences.

RPGA – Role Playing Game Association.

RPGs –Role Playing Games

Sanctioned Tournament – This is usually a term referencing some kind of competitive game and means that the manufacturer sanctioned the event and is supplying prizes and recognition for the winner.  All the hardcore gamers show up for these events (or at least they hope they do).

Sponsored Games – Sponsored is like sanctioned in most ways, but they are not always competitive.  However, there may be prizes given out at the Moderator’s discretion.

TCG – Trading Card Games

Why one goes…

At the heart of a convention-goer is the driving reason why they go to cons.  For a gamer, it is usually the overall drive to game, but the fine details of that answer need to be understood.  Gamers like to game.  Some convention organizers think that is all they like to do.  That may be true for some, but some do not and look for other ways to spend their time at cons.

The most important thing for a person who is considering going to their first con is to figure out why you want to go.  Look at the web site, check out the preliminary schedules and talk with people that have been.  Decide why you want to go and figure out if that particular convention will meet your desires.  You will spend money going to this con, paying for at least the con fee and maybe more (like hotel room, food, gaming “deals” in the dealer’s room) and it needs to be worth the money you plan to spend.  Therefore, finding a few things to make it worth going is essential.

A gamer that is a fan attends a con to enjoy all aspects to the con.  He might play a game or two but won’t commit to a long-term game because a panel he wants to go is scheduled during that game time.  For this type of gamer – and fan-gamer – it is good to game a little but also keep in mind the fan things he wants to do.

The hardcore gamer totally immerses himself in games.  However, I really feel like gamers of this type miss out.  Maybe it is because I am a fan-gamer.  The hardcore gamer always seems to be judge a con totally based on his gaming experience.  The amazing thing is that this may not be based on the scheduled games at all – a hardcore gamer could get his total satisfaction from pick-ups games.

The tournament player or organized player is a subtype of the hardcore player that already knows what he is going to do and when.  The tournament(s) and/or certain organized games are all they are here for.  They come to game in a specific game and to hopefully win something – may it be a trophy, a rare miniature or experience in a ‘networked’ RPG game (and I don’t mean computer games).

Of course there are all kinds of gamers in-between these extremes.  The important thing in all this is to get a completely satisfying experience out of the con, whether it be seeing stuff you would have never seen otherwise, meeting and seeing someone you never thought you would, or playing a particular game all weekend long, there should be something (or multiple somethings) that got you to this con.

To all types, I recommend that, if anything else, try something different.  Of all the advice I can give to GMs and players alike, this is the most important one.  TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT! (This will be a reoccurring theme through out this article).  Variety is the spice of life.

Another good opportunity for variety is simply playing your favorite game with people you have never met or played with.  In the case of competitive games, it is a good way to measure how good you are at the game. In the case of RPGs, it is a good way to see other gaming styles and other GMing styles.  In general, gaming is one thing above all else – a social activity.  It is a way to interact with people. Use these opportunities at cons to get to know these other gamers and enlarge your sphere of friends.  You never know who you might meet.

Use the Web Site

Most cons have a web site.  Most gaming cons have a gaming schedule posted on the web site.  Good gaming cons have an online game pre-registration system a player can use.  Know that most online pre-registration should only allow you access after you have pre-registered for the con.  Use the online schedule to make an initial plan for your weekend, but check the web site often because changes might be made on the schedule and you may have to change your plans accordingly.  Sometimes GMs drop out a week before the con, leaving games cancelled and a gaming coordinator frustrated that he now has empty tables.

Every web site is different.  Cons do not have endless sources of money so most of the time the web site is put together by one or more volunteers who like that sort of stuff anyway.  Some are lucky enough to have really talented web designers and an even smaller subset actually have professional web designers helping them.

The web site is essential in getting your initial information about the con and what is going on.  If the con is out of town for you, it should give you the hotel information and directions.  Make reservations ahead of time, if you can.  These cons live off the number of room-nights they get for the hotel – the more they get, the more likely you will see that con around next year.

Along with the hotel information are the locations of food sources – which can be obtained with a short extended search on the hotel web site (which the con should have a link to).  Hotel food is expensive.  One of my cons has brokered deals with local food venders to sell food in the hotel.  Not all hotels are nice like that.  Many want to force you to eat in their expensive restaurant.  Many do not have an understanding of a gamer’s limited budget.

Other possible useful tools related to the web site are message boards, online forums, and/or mailing lists dedicated to attendees of the con.  This is a good place to post questions, find out who is going and find out the general atmosphere of the con.

The web site is an invaluable resource prior to the con, but remember that chances are you will not have access to it at the convention.

Use the Schedule

The use of the schedule is essential, but of course it depends on how it is printed.  Good cons make it easy to plan things out.  Their gaming schedules are listed in some kind of slotted table set up so that you can clearly map out your gaming.  Other cons may have a confusing mesh of too much information and confusing tables.  Take your time during the slow times at the beginnings of all cons and map out what you want to do.

The program is also usually the place where (if any) prices are listed to play the games.

If it is possible, it’s always a good idea to plan ahead. If you can download the schedule ahead of time from the web, then do.  It’s always a good time saver.  However, the early bird schedule is not always 100% accurate so it’s also a good idea to pick an updated one up at the con and make note of the changes and if they effect your plan.

One good thing to note about conventions and their events schedules – the Auction.  It’s usually a great time to get a ton of good gaming stuff cheap.  Always make time for the auction.

Sponsored vs. non-Sponsored Games

Sponsored or sanctioned games are usually rampant through out the gaming con.  That title simply means that the manufacturer has recognized the event and has supplied some kind of prize for the event.  This does not mean the ordinary walk up player cannot play.  Anyone can play in these for a chance to get the prize. The GM, in fact, is often doing it because he got some free stuff to do it.

An important subcategory of sponsored games is the celebrity-sponsored game – those games run by the maker, writer or contributing writer of the game.  Those are always fun and are good in order to get a feel for the way the creators see the world they write for.

Tournaments vs. Open play

Tournament play is a little more structured than open play and usually hardcore gamers are involved with them.  Open play is what most people do everyday with your favorite game, but this time it gives the players an opportunity to play with people they may have never played with.  It’s a good idea to use open play for those times you want to try something new.

Open gaming or pick-up games are an aspect of a gaming con that is quite common.  Sometimes the con sets aside specific tables designated as open gaming area, while others just label the tables they can’t put a game on as open gaming.  Either way, these are available for the gamer to bring their own game and open it to the other attendees to play.  The problem with this is getting the players.  Some gamers think all they have to do is open the box or put up their GM screen and players will flock.  That is not usually the case. It’s a good idea for a gamer who wants to open up a pick-up game to (1) find out if the gaming coordinator of the con has some method of scheduling and advertising pick-up games, and (2) find a few players yourself.

Bring your Characters?  RPG Organized Play games

Organized Play or Networked role playing games bring on a lot of gamers and a great variety of them.  The RPGA has thousands of members that get together at cons all over the country and role-play in these networked campaigns.

Most RPGA members know they have to bring their characters.  Most have whole portfolios of character laid out based on the campaign(s) they like to play in.  If you want to join one of these types of organizations, you need to be prepared.

The RPGA is by far the largest and most well known.  There are others that are more local, but most of their members are also RPGA members.  RPGA membership is free.  See [Web site] for more information.

Other than bringing your own character, the most important thing to remember about these types of events is know what you want to play ahead of time.  Use the web site and the schedule to plan out your gaming day or weekend. Also, do not be intimidated by their specialized lingo.  The RPGA likes to put things in terms of abbreviations and slot numbers.  It is not as complicated as it sounds.  Just ask one of the coordinators if you have any questions.

Be also aware that there are some gaming cons that are 100% dedicated to organized network campaigns like this.  There are many RPGA-only conventions through out the US.  Make sure you know what kind of convention you are looking at before you decide to go.  Not to say that an all RPGA event would be less of an experience than one with a good mix of other games, but you need to make sure you know what you are getting into.  Usually, the web site will tell you what you need to know.

Non-organized or non-networked games, otherwise known as independent games, usually have characters provided.  Some GMs will allow for you to bring your own, if you contact him ahead of time.  You can usually get contact information of GMs from the gaming coordinator.

Networked or organized play usually does not apply to other games.  If it is applied, people are usually talking about sanctioned games or tournaments.  In these cases, bringing your own supplies usually depends on the game and the type of tournaments.  For board game tournaments, the game is usually supplied.  Miniature games usually require you to bring your own figures and some require them to be painted in some way or another.  Collectible card games have tournaments that require you to bring your own decks (called custom deck tournaments) as well as tournaments that require you to buy decks at the tournament (sealed deck tournaments).  In most of the above cases, the requirements for the sanctioned tournaments and particulars about what you should bring can usually be found on the manufacturer’s web site.

Other Aspects of a Con

Most cons have a dealer’s room and/or an exhibitor’s room and some have an art room.

A dealer’s room is a place where vendors set up and sell stuff.  At a gaming con, they usually are gaming vendors with a whole array of gaming stuff to sell.  One of the core reasons conventions are held is to make the dealers money, and one of the hardest things an organizer must do is keep a dealer happy – primarily because they never make ‘enough’ money to make them happy.  So spend your money!  This will keep the gaming industry alive.

Sometimes the con integrates industry exhibitors in along with the dealers and sometimes they have a separate exhibitor hall.  Industry exhibitors are usually publishers or distributors of games that want to reach the masses directly.  They not only sell their product there, but most will have scheduled or pick-up demos of the games they are selling.  It is a good opportunity to meet the designers and playtesters of the game to ask those questions you have always wanted to ask.

An art room is a place where the con has been paid by artists to exhibit their art and sell it.  Some of the art is art done by your favorite gaming artists and is a good place to get an original from that artist or a large poster size picture of the gaming book cover you like so much.

Some other things a gaming con might have: computer gaming and live action role-playing events.  I am neither a computer gamer nor a big LARPer, so you take these for what they are.  Both usually cost money.

 Advice to GMs

The following is in reference primarily to GMing non-RPGA games and applies mostly to RPG GMing (as opposed to board games, card games, or miniature games).

Game Mastering at a con is a whole new situation.  I would not volunteer to run a game for a con I have never attended.  Attend the con first, get a feel for the attendees and make sure they would want to play the game you want to run.

Running a con game is a great opportunity for a Game Master.  However, especially in the case of small local cons, it is a hit-or-miss situation where players are concerned.  Some games do not attract the players.  The gaming coordinator can only do so much, but sometimes the players just do not show up.  Other times, you have the players but maybe one or two of them do not fit your gaming style.

It is a true test of your game mastering skill, however.  Some GMs get complacent with their regular home group and their skills are not as sharp as they were when they first started.  This is a good way to sharpen up those skills of thinking on your feet and dealing with difficult situations or difficult players.  Be prepared for anything.

There is also a sense of freedom at running a con game, for RPG GMs especially.  The GM does not have to feel as constrained as he does at home because chances are he will not see these players again for another year.  So if he feels like it, he can freely kill or maim a character as he sees fit.  This is why it is important for an RPG GM to challenge himself as well as the players.  When creating the adventure he plans to run at the con, the GM should ‘think outside his respective box’ and do things he has always wanted to do but has not had a chance with his regular game.  Be creative.

It is important for RPG GMs to have those pre-generated characters ready ahead of time.  Depending on your lifestyle, you may want to start on them considerably in advance.  Regardless of when you do it, use that as an opportunity to freshen up on the subtle details of the rules system – like for instance, the details behind certain feats (in a d20 system) or spells.

Non-RPG (board game, miniature games, card game) GMs have a fundamental question to answer – are you going to be a GM or a marshalling player.  Some organized tournaments require you to be an objective judge.  Gaming mastering open-play games allows you the freedom to either play or sit back and teach the game.  Some GMs like it one way, and others like it the other.  Playing in the game means one less player slot the gaming coordinator has to worry about filling.  GMing without playing means the gaming coordinator has one more slot to make available.  Some coordinators require the GM to make that slot available if necessary, but it is totally up to the coordinator.

Non-RPG GMs have similar opportunities as the RPG GM.  The opportunities to play with other players to learn different strategies or teach new players is always there and helps the community overall.

How can I afford a Con? Financial Advice

One of the biggest obstacles to attending a con is affording it.  Between the con fee, the hotel and food, it’s a lot to spend in a weekend.  On top of that, you want money for the dealer’s room, auction,  and possibly art room,  LARP fees,  etc.  Larger cons tend to take place in larger more expensive hotels.  Smaller cons work hard with the hotel to get you a good deal on room prices, but a good deal is still usually $60 to $80 a night.

The best thing for a person to do is find some roommates.  Attend with a group of friends and share a room with them.  If that is not possible, find an online message board, forum or mailing list for the con and post a question about finding roommates.  This could be hit or miss because you could get a person that snores really loudly or a freak of a roommate, but it is better than spending all that money to be alone.

Bring snack food and a cooler with drinks to save money on meals/snacks.  Budget your eating and your dealer room money.  One thing I’ve done that has helped me make money to pay for cons is bring a crate of old gaming stuff I want to sell and sell it at the con.  I suppose I have an advantage because I have a table set up for me at gaming registration and set the crate there.  Some gaming coordinators may let you set your crate there as well and agree to handle the sales when you are not available.  Be sure you trust the guy before you arrange this, but it is something I have done and done for other people.

In conclusion
Despite all that I have said, one thing is true – every con is different.  The type of people set the social atmosphere.  Most cons are a great place to socialize, game, and meet new people within your interest area.  Some cons (a small percentage) have turned cliquish and are hard for first time con-goers to really break into.  It is a good idea to talk to people about the con and find out what other people like about it.

I cannot stress enough to all gamers – experiencing a con at least once is essential to your “gaming maturity.”  It is an outstanding experience, at least for me, and I have been doing it for 15 years.  I love going to them, and I love gaming at them.  I have been very happy to be involved with the cons I have and have been privileged and honored to meet some of the best gamers in the region at these cons.  I encourage you as a gamer to try out a con.

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