ConGregate 2015

Sci-fi fandom gathering in High Point, NC

Once again, JustUs Productions was asked to do gaming at ConGregate, a small and growing sci-fi convention in North Carolina.  At its core, ConGregate is made up of a lot of experienced people from a con called StellarCon, which they ran for many years.  StellarCon was eventually handed over to a new group of people, primarily based out of UNC-Greensboro and has since collapsed from poor leadership and management.  Although scheduled during a different time of the year, ConGregate is picking up from the ashes of that con and reigniting fandom in the Triad area.

It’s not always easy, especially for a con scheduled in the heart of summer vacation time, to pull in the fans. It did reasonably well last year, so the con staff stuck with it.  The worst thing a con can do is move its dates around, so I don’t blame them.  They lined up a pretty decent guest list which included…

Writer Guest of Honor: Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole  (two long time Star Wars writers and Michael was also a gaming writer for along time)

Fan Guest of Honor: Albin Johnson (founder of the 501st Stormtroopers)

Special Artist Guest: Scott Rorie (incredible artist, best known for his Star Wars art)

Special Musical Guests: Valentine Wolfe

Obviously the release of the new Star Wars movie was an influence.

From a gaming point of view, Pathfinder and D&D Adventurers League lead the pack on getting on the schedule and in getting pre-registrations.  I was able to pull in a few other non-organized play games, including help from the No Ordinary Gamers demo group, the Hull Breach demo team and Duncan Davis, creator of Origin: In the City.  Additionally, the NC Gunbunnies organized a small Warmachine/Horde qualifier for the Invitational event we hold at MACE every year.

As much as I liked the gaming schedule line up, I prefer to have a little more board games and RPGs but I get whatever the community is willing to give me.  It was like stepping back in time for me, during the days when I ran gaming for StellarCon (2000 to 2006).  It’s humbling to come back to a con that limits me to 20 tables when I am used to 100+ tables at MACE.  I had a chance to get to know some of the more dedicated gamers and play some games I have not had a chance to play at our bigger events.

This is also JustUs Productions’ return to the High Point hotel it used to reside in.  We used to run MACE out of this old hotel up until 4 years ago when it moved to a larger hotel and better location in Charlotte.  The hotel in general is much improved on the surface since last I had seen it.  Radisson had taken it over and cleaned it up a lot.  There is still some obvious age to the place, but the owners are obviously making an effort to clean it up.

My hopes were that the con had shaken off the first year jitters and gaming would get some momentum.  Some of the same GMs did return from last year but some did not.  I got a few new ones too, so that is encouraging.  Unfortunately, at least for Friday night, it did not change from last year and perhaps stepped back a little.  Unfortunately, the gamers did not turn out all that much Friday night.  The only shining light in all Friday was D&D Adventurers League and Pathfinder Society, which made several tables and that room was busy all night.

One very interesting moment that started the weekend out with me is meeting a particular guy – we will name him Jon – who really concerned me when he first contacted us about signing up for D&D AL.  He seemed somewhat obsessive.  Turns out, he is functionally autistic and somewhat agoraphobic.  He did not know what he was getting into when he signed up for a convention game but his doctor told him that he needed to stop playing computer games and be more social.  D&D AL turned out to be his outlet.  So I made it my mission to make sure he was as comfortable as possible and made sure he got to his table.  In a way, that made my day – to help someone that is willing to make the effort to come out of his shell despite the debilitation he is suffering from.

Friday night did not change all that much for the final evening slot.  My game of Eldritch Horror did not make, so I gathered up a couple of players to try a new game out – I, Spy.  No, it is not the kids game.  It is a great Kickstarter board game by Lost Boys Productions.  I will be writing of review of that soon.  It’s an incredible game and made my Friday night.

I awoke with hopes that Saturday would get a little better.

One thing we have started in the past year at all our events is running our version of Killer, the Game of Assassination (Steve Jackson Games), specifically tooled for conventions.  We did this at MACE a lot until it got too difficult to run but now that smartphones are more prevalent, it is much easier to run.  We had a very successful game at MACE and MACE West.  I decided to throw a Star Wars theme on it and see how well it does at ConGregate.  Unfortunately, it was another casualty of the light gamer traffic but it is good enough that I am going to try it at MACE this year.

Things did pick up on Saturday.  We started pulling in more gamers and more gamer were making.   Warmachine had a lot of players and made the room look real busy.  I got to play several games. No Ordinary Gamers and the Hull Breach guys seemed to have a good flow of demos.  The new hotel and the new location of gaming seemed to help with the traffic issues they had last year. Also Pathfinder Society doubled in size and D&D AL did reasonably well also.  D&D seemed to fizzle out, however, and that might be because of some logistics that I will resolve next year.

One game that really impressed me is an0ther Kickstarter game called Space Movers.  We should have a game review up very soon.  I played it twice and bought the game immediately after.  I liked this game a lot and highly recommend it. I ran a session of Battle for Oz RPG with a good group of 4.  I wrote a short adventure that I kind of rushed through but I think they enjoyed it.  And finally I got to play Dead of Winter, which is an incredible game as well.  Saturday definitely was much more enjoyable than Friday and definitely picked my spirits up a little more.

I was overall pleased with the results on Saturday.  I think the move to a new location after last year might have reset things at least on the gaming side, so that it was more like a first year con again.  Now that they have a stable location, I think gamers will start turning out more and more now that we can show they were missing out.

Sunday was not all that different from Friday, which is no surprise.  We had to leave early because our family vacation started that week and we needed to get down to the beach as soon as possible.  It was safe enough to leave gaming on cruise control until the end of the con.

Other aspects of the con went rather well, from what I heard and saw.  My kids enjoyed the kids track.  ConGregate is one of the few cons that runs a kids track well.  They had a good hallway of fan tables including the 501st and the Mandalorian Mercs.  I got the chance to enjoy the costume contest, a little filk music and general schmoozing with some sci-fi authors I had not spoken to since I left the scene.  Most of the guests seemed reasonably pleased by the end of Saturday and I heard there were quite a few parties that night.

There will be a few changes made next year but all-in-all, I think gaming continues to show potential.  You can judge that potential by the peak times Saturday afternoon.  We were pretty busy Saturday afternoon. All we have to do is grow from that.  More board games, more general RPGs and move a few things around and I should have a good base.

 

 

 

Con-Gregate 2014 – Gaming Coordinator Report

gregnoglassforwebFirst year con jitters.

It has been a while since I first experienced a first year con.  I had forgotten the struggles it goes through to get attendance, appear attractive to the base, and the general issues first year cons go through.  Con-Gregate is a little different from this perspective, however. The experience behind the staff really helps the con jump over some of the traditional hurtles a con has to deal with.  There is no real downside to experience on a con staff as long as people are not stuck in their one way of doing things.  Running cons needs experienced staff regardless of genre or type and adaptable people at the helm as they not only have to change for each environment they are in (hotel, locality and community) but also with the times and the shifting fandom.  Con-Gregate, a small literary fandom con contracted JustUs Productions out to run gaming for them, and with the experience behind this con, we had no doubts this con had potential.

However, regardless of experience, every con has to go through its first year jitters.  Attracting attendees is very hard, especially in the crowded world of fandom cons.  It is a challenge to persuade an already strapped and thin demographic to come spend their money at your event without history or reputation to back it up.  Con-Gregate had to tackle that issue as well as many others and I think they learned a few things.  In the end, I think a good foundation was laid.

Knowing that it was a first year, as gaming coordinator I approached it with the intention of starting out slow.  I was given limited space and I was not sure how many locals would turn out to game, so I did not set my expectations high.  JustUs had some contacts in the area but it had been a while since we ran anything major in the area.  The area was a little soured by other events putting on less than perfect gaming and I had to overcome that.  I put out GM call after GM call and got a moderate response.  As the con drew closer, I got more and more events on the schedule – enough to make a satisfactory game schedule.

After 15 years of doing this, a small first year con was not mush work for me.  I had things ready quickly despite dealing with other convention events and family vacations a month beforehand.  Our usual quality gaming set up was ready and packed 24 hours before the con.  Arrival was not without its stressful moments but most obstacles were easily overcome and gaming was ready for the day of the con.

Attendance was generally sparse at the beginning and gradually built up.  From a gaming point, some games made while others did not.  I put the board game room in the middle of the main flow of traffic but it did not seem like anyone was interested in playing board or card games.  RPGs, which were in sort of an isolated portion of the con, did pretty well although there were a few games that did not make.  Despite my lowered expectations, I think it had been too long since I dealt with a first time con situation and so I had forgotten the ebbs and flows of gaming at such an event.

Saturday afternoon is usually peak for any 3-day weekend con, fandom or gaming.  By then you have the most people you are going to have at one time.  In those few hours, the board game room finally started to buzz, and more games started to make in the RPG room.  I finally felt satisfied and thought our gaming was a success.

Also being a sci-fi con, gaming was not the focus so I did not expect a ton of gamers to flood in.  You also have the gamers that are fans and that want to fit in panels or find it hard to fit long game sessions in their other plans. All one can do is make the gaming schedule as attractive as possible across as broad base as possible, with what the community provides you in terms of GMs, judges and event coordinators.  I think I accomplished that.

Gamers are a challenging bunch.  Some will come out for any kind of game while others want a specific kind of game.  But I think the vast majority of gamers that will come to a con will come once they know there is a solid schedule with a certain level of organization, and a enough variety to cover a broad swath of the community.  Once you establish a solid reputation within the established gaming community of the city you are in, word will spread.  But that reputation has to be near stellar or you get the “…meh..” reaction.  In a first year con, it is all about establishing that reputation and foundation within the community.  This was my goal.

I scheduled myself for 6 games – one RPG (Realms of Cthulhu/Achtung! Cthulhu), two board game (Eldrich Horror and Aliens), and two minis games (Star Wars: X-Wing, and Axis & Allies minis).  I ran games that I like to see at cons.  5 of of my 6 games made and I was very happy with that.  Others were not so lucky but most had at least one game make.  So I was reasonably pleased in the end.

As for the other side of the con – the fandom side – I honestly cannot comment too much on.  I like to immerse myself in the gaming side so that everything goes as well as it can.  My wife worked on guests this year, and all seemed to go well on that end.  They had a great line up of literary guests that included Larry Correia (writer of Monster Hunter International), Mark Poole (artist), Toni Weisskopf (Baen Books), and Jennifer McCollom (special effects makeup artist).  They also had Steve Long of Hero Games, who ran a charity game of their new setting for the Hero System, Monster Hunter International, with Larry Correia as a player.

They also had a variety of discussion panels, some of which I heard were very innovative and interactive.  Fandom areas that were covered included literary sci-fi, fantasy and horror (of course), costuming and cosplay, filking, and podcasting. A vast majority of the attendance came for those, obviously, and all seemed to have a good time. They also had a decent sized dealers room and a fan table hall.

What I like best about Con-Gregate and any con like this is the potential and the energy.  If you don’t have one or the other, you might as well hang up the towel.  The potential is there, for sure.  Between the experience and the area, there is great potential.  There is still a lot of hard work to tap that potential but with the right people, the right motivation and the right resources, it can happen.  There is some history of past cons and bad experiences they have to overcome, but that takes time.  Gamers in particular have been burned in the area and it is going to be a challenge get over that history.  Being aware of that history is also important and that only comes from experience.

The energy is something that builds.  Like a spark that starts a fire, it can start out slow but get to feverish pace in a short few years.  The numbers I am hearing from this con sounds like the spark has struck and it is off to a good start.  I have some work to do on the gaming side but that will take time.  Some gamers I had never met have came and that means I am hitting gamers that our other events have not touched.  They will go off and tell their other friends and the good reputation will start.  The few GMs and games I had are some of the best in my “GM stable” and without a doubt, helped start this fire and I hope it spreads.

Thanks to James and Tera Fulbright, as well as my wife Stephanie and the other staff members for helping make this con what it is and what it will be.  I look forward to more ConGregates in the future.  The people behind this con are going at it very intelligently.  There are certain tropes that they do at every con that never change, but they are also changing up things from the way they used to do things.  That willingness to change and adapt will go a long way.  They are also doing it smart and running it like a business.  They have a great marketing plan, logo and look to the con.  They have established their brand up front to differentiate from other events as well as past events in the area.  I have a lot of confidence in them.

 

RavenCon 2014 – A follow up

This is a follow up to RavenCon 2014 – Virginia sci-fi and gaming

I have received enough feedback from my RavenCon review that I felt that a follow up was needed.  From this feedback, I think there are some beneficial lessons that can help with convention management, gaming coordinating, as well as one’s convention experience.  Getting the full perspective of a con is not always easy.  I sometimes find more insight after the con.  Since RavenCon, I have spoken with a senior convention staff member as well as a game designer/publisher that attended.  Their feedback to my first review is what lead me to this  follow up.  This is not intended to be a retraction or an “apology.” I stand by what I wrote in my initial review. I just truly feel that after the feedback I received that there is more of a tale to tell about RavenCon.

One challenge every con manager faces is space management.  It’s rare that a convention finds the perfect space for its event.  As a con manager, you are balancing the cost of  the space with the ambiguous projections of what you think your con will make that coming year.  Attendance is a big part of space management.  Traffic flows, event space allocation and vendor/fan table placement are all effected by attendance projections.  Past attendance is the number one factor in those projections but other factors can affect it as well – popularity of your guests, economy, hotel room costs, etc.

I called RavenCon a small con, and from a gamer’s perspective, I think it still can be considered that.  However, now that the official numbers have been released, I have to amend that statement.  RavenCon had 1100 people in attendance and that is by no means a small con.  With respect to cons of its nature, this would rank up there in the medium to large sized event.  I was very surprised at these numbers.  The space was well managed from this perspective, so much so that it disguised the numbers well.  The hotel they have has a great convention space.  It has what I would call a little “character” and it has a lot of small, medium and large rooms spread out over 2 main floors.  This kind of con space can easily disguise attendance numbers.

A good con space like this can also be a double edged sword.  Managing and judging traffic flow is a huge part of con management. When you are trying to please various vendors, exhibitors, demo-teams, fan groups and authors, it can be a frustrating thing.  As you will see in my later comments, the way gaming was placed caused some displeasure to one particular game designer.  In all the above examples, everyone wants visibility; everyone wants to be seen in the flow of traffic.  Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t please everyone.  Also, unfortunately, when your con has other priorities and areas of focus, peripheral items like gaming get left in the dark.

As I said in my previous review, there are several types of gaming events that a gaming coordinator has to juggle.  You have games that need preregistration, and games that don’t; games that have limited seating and games that can manage their seating on their own.  One of the types that I deal with are what I would call “demo tables.”  They are open gaming tables set up by a game publisher or designer, and all they want is to be in the middle of the traffic flow to maximize their player potential.  They don’t need a schedule but it would be nice if they have some kind of visibility on the schedule.  They manage their player seats and schedule, unless they want to set aside special time for tournaments.  Tournaments need to be scheduled and usually have a limited amount of seats. With the advent of Kickstarter, these types of gaming events are more and more common.  Kickstarter  has made it easier for small designers to get their ideas to production, so more of more of these designers are showing up at small to medium sized gaming cons.

The mistake that some sci-fi cons make is treating all gaming the same.  They assume, for example, that demo tables will do well if they are stuck in the same room as other gaming.  And depending on the product, sometimes that may be true.  However, in most cases, simple demo tables do better if they are out in the middle of the traffic. For a sci-fi con, a place somewhere between the gamers and non-gamers would be ideal.  In many cases, non-gamers will still sit down for a 30 minute to hour demo.  If you tuck these guys away with the other gamers, you re limiting their exposure and also making a statement that gamers are an area of interest that you want contained in their own little corner.  That’s not very welcoming to some gamers.

Unfortunately, this game designer/publisher that I talked to had that experience at RavenCon.  He felt tucked away in a corner and under-exposed for what he wanted to show off.  As much as gamers like a room to themselves, game designer and publishers like exposure to a wider audience.  There are gamers that just want to be left alone but there are also gamers that like to cross over into mainstream fans.  There are games that primarily appeal to gamers but there are also games that are “gateway” games, that most mainstream fans would get into.  A good coordinator would know how to balance those in the space they have.

However, this does go back to the particular “character” of the RavenCon space.  Traffic flow is harder to predict in a split level convention space.  However, to be honest, there were places that could be used for open demo space that was more visible  than the gaming room itself.  It has taken me a while to discern between the various game and gamer types and a lot of trial and error.  I left a few publishers and designers unhappy because I misplaced them or they simply did not get the traffic they wanted.  It’s not an exact science.  It’s more an instinct thing, and a gaming coordinator has to make an effort to get to know his or her game masters to get a good sense of things.

With numbers like RavenCon is getting, it can only get better.  One of the areas that has a lot of potential is gaming.  RavenCon can easily reach 1500 through gaming alone.  However, without proper management, that potential can not be properly tapped and you run the risk of alienating a lot of potential gaming attendees.  Word spreads fast among gamers if a con is not friendly to gamers.  If that word is negative, gaming at your con can stagnate.  I have seen it happen.

RavenCon 2014 – Virginia sci-fi and gaming

Day 1 – Friday

The journey from my home near Charlotte, NC to Richmond, Va is not a short one but I have been wanting to check out a con for years called RavenCon. It is run by a good group of people, some of which I know from my days of running sci-fi cons. My kids like to dress up and play around with other kids that like sci-fi, so I like to go to these on occasion. I know going in that the gaming is not the focus at these cons, but I have at least a minimum expectation that there is some and it might be reasonably organized.

Once I knew that I could commit to the con, I made my reservations and sent in my game proposals two months before the con.  That’s perhaps a little last minute for some but two months out from the cons I am involved with is still early enough to get on the schedule and have enough visibility to get some players. The game coordinators were very good about communicating things to me and kept me in the loop when things changed. I was reasonably encouraged by that.

However, I never really got any notice that there was some kind of online preregistration, no notice that I had any players signed up or interest in my games. I wasn’t overly disappointed by that, but it set an expectation that they would at least have on-site sign up. I know they had Pathfinder Society on the schedule, which relies 100% on online registration and if I had thought of it at the time, I would have looked for the schedule on Warhorn, but I didn’t until later.

It took a little longer than expected to get there, but we got there. There were more stops along the way than we had planned but we felt we could at least get there before my first game at 8 pm. I had set us up as press for The Gamer’s Codex so I had hoped finding my badges would be easy. It only took going to three different locations but I was able to find them.  Because I cross over from Press to Gaming, it is easy to imagine that they could have been in one of any place they sent me to.  So I don’t fault them on this one. It’s my fault. I made it complicated.

After we settled in, I gathered my gaming stuff and headed down to run my first session –Three Kings adventure in Realms of Cthulhu/Savage Worlds/Achtung! Cthulhu. You can see my second look on this adventure here, where I document my journey in making this adventure a con game. I was really looking forward to running this adventure one more time. (I had run it for my home group as well as at MACE West already.) I had made some significant changes to how I ran the game.  I was really wanting to try out those new changes.  This perhaps is one of the reasons why the sting was so strong when I made it to the gaming table and saw what they had.

I had already met one of the gaming coordinators, Libbie Miller, on my search for my badge. She seemed like a nice person.  She had one or two other people helping her, but I did not catch their names.  I never met the other coordinator, Shadow Harmon, who apparently does both RavenCon and MarsCon. It seemed like they had their stuff together. They had 5 tables of PFS that were always busy and full. That is no surprise as PFS is the new RPGA and they are hitting the industry by storm. You cannot lose with Pathfinder Society right now. They had 5 or 6 tables for other RPGs, some of which were games run by this RPG group called MAGMA – Mid Atlantic Gaming Mavens Alliance.  My table was among those.  There were also 5 or 6 tables for board games and minis.  Apparently there was also a Magic Tournament planned but I never really got a chance to look into it.

As it turns out, they had no on-site sign up of any kind.  I did not have any players waiting for me. This was somewhat disconcerting but I was really going to try to make the best of it.  I met a guy, Tom, that was very interested in my game but I needed a minimum of four to play.  Tom said he had some friends coming that would be interested.  However, it would probably work better for them on Saturday. I had a session of something else Saturday but I was willing to run this instead.  I resolved that if I did not get any players Friday night, I would connect up with Tom and his friends to run it on Saturday.

Thirty minutes into it, it did not look like I was going to get any players. It seemed that all had settled down into their own games – primarily PFS or MAGMA games.  So I packed up.

This is something that may be a pet peeve of mine or it may be that I was disgruntled because everyone else had no problem getting players.  However, this is not the way I would do it. In my 15 years of running gaming for 2 or 3 cons per year, I never want any of my GMs to be forced to sit at their tables and beg for players.  I strive to make sure that all GMs have an equal chance to obtain players.  This includes online and onsite registration.  I finally looked on Warhorn for a RavenCon site, and in fact their was one.  It only listed the PFS and MAGMA games. So they had online registration for some of their games but not all. That bugged me a little.

I would imagine that perhaps RavenCon gaming has survived using this “ad-hoc” model for a while, with little to no problems.  This is probably the first year that they had to worry about something else other than that model.  Perhaps because gaming was not a huge focus in the past, they really did not have a need for more organization. Maybe this was the first time they had a significant PFS presence, so they let them handle it on their own. Additionally, perhaps the PFS folks worked with the MAGMA gamers to create their own schedule.  Unfortunately, this ended up leaving me and a few other games in the dark.  We were denied the visibility and exposure that the other games got. This is what I believe is really at the core of what a gaming coordinator should do.

In my experienced but humble view, a gaming coordinator needs to make sure everyone knows what gaming is available and give every gaming event the same preregistration and onsite registration opportunities.  The fact that a couple of groups got together and did it on their own should show the coordinator that there is a need.  At the very least, the coordinator could have connected me up with the MAGMA people to get on their schedule.

Of course, gaming is my bread and butter and coordinating gaming at cons is what I do, so I may be a little more critical than most. I do not want to take away from what they had there. They had just enough organization to get people to their tables and know when they were running, which is more than I can say for other cons.  The main gaming room they were given was of moderate size.  There apparently was another room for the Magic tournament but I never saw a lot of activity in that room.  For what they had, they definitely made the best of it. They were well supported by local game stores including The Dragon’s Den, and they had a good variety between RPGs, board games and minis. The PFS set up was top notch and the Venture Captain had a good line up of games.  Friday night, the room was about two-thirds full with all varieties of games running.

My understanding is that they will be expanding gaming to other rooms and will have way more gaming next year.  If they do, they need to coordinate more.  First, a comprehensive online schedule is needed.  Some games don’t need preregistration but still need the visibility. I place all games on my schedule whether they need preregistration or not, so people know what is going on.  If Warhorn is the only option for them, I suggest that the coordinator take ownership of that and work with the various groups to make sure there is a comprehensive schedule online.  A good online schedule can drive your preregistration rate up easily.

Secondly, some kind of onsite registration is needed.  To their credit, they had nice schedule posters on the walls for each day and changes were made as time went on directly to those posters.  This can be expanded upon.  With a dedicated gaming coordinator and a few volunteers, an on-site registration can be set up.  It could be as simple as a couple of computers running Warhorn but there still needs to be a coordinator for pick-up games, games that might want to move or change time slots or other issues.

There are a wide variety of games that a coordinator has to deal with.  Some don’t need preregistration and work best with the ad-hoc/pick-up model.  Others have limited seating and need some kind of registration system in place.  Others are handled by sub-coordinators like tournaments and other special events.  A good coordinator can cater to all these various types of games with a comprehensive schedule that a player can understand.

With a little more coordination, this could be a very good con for gamers. It is right on the verge of having a very good gaming track and a little more effort needs to be put in or the growth could become a curse rather than the blessing they were hoping for.  As I have said, it is not the con’s focus but it is slowly becoming a significant part of it.  The gamers were very passionate and dedicated and were also very friendly and welcoming.  This gave me hope that there is a potential for more on Saturday.

That evening, I hung out with my family for a time, dropped into a Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD discussion (which was a blast) and then roamed around with a few people I knew for a little while to socialize.  I got the sour taste out of my mouth from the initial gaming experience fairly early and enjoyed the rest of the night.

Day 2 – Saturday

My game the night before was a wash but I went into Saturday undaunted. I was bound and determined to have a good gaming experience at this con if I had to force it. Always remember that there are two sides to a gaming experience – the one they give you and the one you choose to have. You have to choose to forget the bad and seek out the good.

Being a con that I don’t have to get up early for, I chose not to do so and we took our time coming down. I fully intended on meeting up with Tom and friends to hopefully muster enough players to run this Achtung! Cthulhu adventure. I was scheduled to run Aliens the Board Game but I was more than willing to drop that in favor of this RPG adventure. I had a great time with Aliens at MACE West, but really wanted to playtest all the work I put into Three Kings.

Throughout the morning, I dropped by the gaming room to see how things were progressing.  I was impressed with the building energy.  Between the PFS, MAGMA gamers, and the demos being run by The Dragon’s Den, gaming was finally kicking into full swing.  This reminded me of when I ran gaming for a small to medium sized sci-fi con in High Point.  It was fairly natural to have a slow Friday night, a very busy Saturday and a near dead Sunday at a con like this.  However, despite this, I still had a comprehensive schedule and on-site registration when I ran gaming at a con this size.

My two oldest kids got involved with the kids program, which was unbelievably well done.  It was based on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and my kids had a blast.  The fan side of the con – programming events, kids program, and guests – were all well done.  The guest line up was primarily literary and not something I was overly interested in, which is why I thought running games would be good for me at this con.  The gaming guest of honor, however, was Lee Garvin – famous for Tales from the Floating Vagabond role-playing game, published by Avalon Hill.  I never got to talk to him and probably should have made time.  I do apologize for that journalistic failure.

The good side of my games not having any players registered for my games is that I can change them however I wanted.  I did end up getting a full table for the Achtung! Cthulhu game.  Unfortunately, none of them ever played Savage Worlds before, and I am not the best person to teach it, as I am still getting used to it.  In fact, I had a college student who never played in an RPG before in their lives and a 10 year old boy who was probably overly enthusiastic.

I took on the challenge and I think they got a reasonable understanding of the game.  However, this did take time.  We got very close to the end of the adventure, however, mostly because of some very intelligent and sharp-eyed players.  It is safe to say there is such a thing as too much preparation and additive material.  Because this adventure took place in a real location, I chose to use the internet for what it is good for – research.  I found some great photos of the location – castle in Czechoslovakia – and used them as more intelligence photos.  Unfortunately, these photos very poignantly revealed some features that were not figured into the adventures – including some back doors into the location of the boss bad guy.  The players were very astute and alert when finding these back doors and I could not take that away from them.  It was brilliant; it just changed the adventure a little.

This session made up for a lot of the bad that I experienced the previous night, with respect to gaming.  I went into the rest of the evening very satisfied with my gaming experience for the day.  My two oldest were going to be in the costume contest – my son dressed as Arrow and my daughter dressed as Katniss from Hunger Games.  I packed up quickly and made it to the costume contest just in time.

My kids are another reason why I attend the occasional sci-fi con. I ran a sci-fi con for several years and they grew up on them.  They really liked costuming and wanted to get involved.  So once I got out of running sci-fi cons, I decided to attend a few each year so the kids can still pursue that interest.  The RavenCon costume contest was small but very well organized.  The person in charge – Anita Bruckert – really knew what she was doing and probably could do really well at a larger con.  The costumes were all very good.  I was most impressed with the Warhammer 40k space marine.

After dinner and checking the gaming room for pick-up games, I checked out the parties while my wife put the kids to bed.  There were 3 major ones and the ever-present Baen Barfly room.  The Klingons party seemed to be the hottest.  There was also one being run by the Honor Harrington fan group as well as the DC17 World Con bid group.  The nightlife of RavenCon was more than adequate to keep the attention of the party going crowd, of which I think I have simply outgrown.  There was a time, but that was a long time ago.

Day 3 – Sunday

I was scheduled to run Star Wars X-Wing miniatures Sunday morning. I set up and once again, no players.  This time, I waited an hour.  Sunday, as expected, was dead.  It did not look like any PFS games even made. I did not check the schedule, however, to see if any were scheduled.  By 10 am, I was packing up and while I was doing so, I was being told I was on the wrong table by another person.  Already not in the best mood because I did not get players, I grumbly apologized for the confusion. I was told I had Table 10 on Saturday and Sunday but changes could have been made that I was not aware of.  They were insistent that I was at the wrong table and the coordinator was nowhere to be seen.  They finally figured out that they were actually on table 14 and apologized.  Again, I am sure this kind of thing happens even at cons I am involved with, but at least I am there to straighten it up.

Once more, my games did not make because I was not on any kind of preregistration system.  At the same time, however, it was so dead that early in the morning, I am not sure any players would have shown up.  The games that did make looked really fun, actually – one Savage Worlds game as well as what looked like a Delta Green Call of Cthulhu game by MAGMA people.  I thought about joining one of those but instead, I wanted to help my wife pack up and get the kids ready to leave.

We left fairly early, as we had other things to do in Richmond.  We got home fairly late but felt reasonably satisfied with our con experience.  I was told ahead of time what to expect in terms of size and I was not surprised.  It was a small con but the people were friendly, the fans were passionate and the staff worked hard.  This is the ninth year of this con and growth has obviously been slow.  The fact that it’s a literary con is probably why – they simply do not pull in as many people as media cons.  I respect the decision to stay that way, as it keeps things simple and keeps the con manageable.  The con I was involved with decided to go media after 5 years of slow growth as a literary con and it became unmanageably large.  RavenCon is a good family friendly con with a lot of offer a fan.

Gaming needs a little work but it has a lot of potential.  It will grow and when it does, it’s going to need more management then they are doing now.  I know the players had a good time but unless you are with PFS or MAGMA, you are going to have to scrounge for players.  They have a good location and good people.  They just have to harness the potential they have and manage it well.

RoundCon 2013: A Battle with Adversity

In 2013, JustUs Productions (the guys behind this web site and gaming cons like MACE in Charlotte, NC) was asked to run gaming at a con in Columbia, SC called RoundCon (RC).  RC has been around for 20+ years, first started by a gaming club out of the University of South Carolina.  Sean Martinez has been the guy behind RoundCon for several years now.  Some time ago, Sean took over the con from the ailing gaming club and turned into his own business.

In all truth, RoundCon has struggled in many areas over the last few years.  It has not had consistent dates for several years, which is a big no-no in the con business.  It also has struggled with an identity crisis.  Sean has two major interests.  Gaming is one of them; anime is the other.  He has tried to satisfy both passions by having both at his con.  However, one or the other has suffered each year.  Some gamers got turned off by the inconsistent gaming and some were put off by the increase focus on anime.  From a gaming point of view, RoundCon was going to be a total rebuild for us from the start.

Rebuilding gaming for a con like this takes a lot of work and a lot of disappointments at first.  Gamers will only believe it when they see it, so the first year was just going to be a building year to show gamers that it can be possible to rebuild gaming at a con that has struggled in the past.  You can promise the moon to gamers but until they see the consistent schedule, the games being played, and the passion behind making it work, they won’t show.  So at the very least, we knew not to expect a huge turnout for the first year of a rebuild.

There were also other circumstances that made things difficult for RoundCon gaming and, without getting into too much detail, just know that RoundCon had a lot to overcome.  On top of that, Sean had to make the difficult decision to move his con 3 weeks before the con.  That is a huge no-no, but fortunately we were able to work with him and help him move it across the street so it was not a huge move.

This year for us has been a lesson is humility, in perseverance, and in patience.  We got through the adversity and at least for the first day, despite the thin schedule, we had a pretty good turn out.  With the change in venue, I had to whittle everything down to 25 tables.  All games made, for the most part.  Most, if not all, gamers seemed happy and had a good time. Also, there were very little fires to put out.

img_20130802_211323_363The best thing was the energy.  Gamers saw and they believed.  The energy for RoundCon gaming was up and even though they didn’t see as much on the schedule as I would like this year, they know they will see more next year.  I made good contacts with people that are willing to support gaming in this community and go beyond personal politics.  Next year has a lot more potential now.  I have to admit, early on, the adversity had really effected my spirits but as the con went on, I felt much better.  I think we have a lot to look forward to.

I had a combination of anticipation and dread going into the second day of RoundCon.  Saturday for three day weekend cons are usually the peak days, where the con gets a lot of one day-pass traffic.  I really did not feel I had enough on the schedule to keep people happy.  And as it turns out, I was right.   However, that turned out to be a good thing.  It gave me the opportunity to (1) explain to them our plans for the future  and (2) push MACE and our other events.  For what it is was, Saturday was a really good day.  I was very surprised. More than two-thirds of the tables made and there were many pick up games.  The energy in the room was very tangible; people were enjoying themselves and dice and cards were being thrown everywhere.

Bottom line, RoundCon was a small gaming event as compared to many others.  I figure we had maybe 75 to 100 gamers, yet much can be learned from the challenges we faced.  RoundCon has a lot of history and with that comes a lot of baggage.  Even the larger cons like DragonCon have baggage.  This baggage can manifest in many ways.  In the case of RoundCon, it amounted to bad politics and a divided local gaming community.  We at JustUs Productions were not involved in these politics which made us an ideal group to help out.  Working hard to find people outside of the division and outside the politics was the priority.  Not being in the area made it difficult but we made up for it with all the networking we did onsite.

Despite all the adversity and challenges we faced, RoundCon still has a lot of potential and next year will only grow.  We had a lot of fun with many of the faithful willing to come out to game with us. With their help, RoundCon gaming will return to what it was.  JustUs Productions looks forward to working with them in the future.

Mysticon 2013 – Roanoke, Va

Day 1 – First Impressions

2012 was a very turbulent year for me, from a convention perspective. I shifted my focus to Justus Productions and gaming cons and away from the fan cons I was volunteering for.  After 11 years working a nonprofit fandom con on top of working several gaming events for Justus productions, I had enough of the silly fandom politics and moved on to bigger and better things.  However, my kids who grew up going with me to the fandom cons wanted an outlet.  I also wanted to visit a few cons that I never got to.

In 2013, my wife and I picked a couple of cons to go to. First on the list was Mysticon in Roanoke, Virginia (February 22-24).  This is a con with an interesting history.  In the 80s, Mysticon existed for 3 years and I am not sure about the circumstances behind it’s collapse back then.  It is now in its third year in its new incarnation. I remember working with some of their concom, helping them with advice when I worked in the fandom con business.  They are good people, very smart about their approach to the business and I think they are going to see the fruits of that intelligence for years to come.

I have family in Virginia, with my parents basically growing up in the state.  However, I have never been to Roanoke.  Just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you find yourself in what is called the Ridge and Valley region of the Appalachians.  It is a very hilly and ridgy area of Virgina.  It is called the Big Lick, which I never knew, and is a big joke with a lot the first time visitors.

100_1912My arrival to the Holiday Inn was fairly pleasant as the first thing I saw was the 1960s Batmobile right there out in the front.  Where was this thing when I was looking for one for the car show I was organizing in 2012?  He had a real nice one.  He towed it all the way down from Jersey.

The hotel was nice enough, if not a little cramped.  I am fairly sure this con is going to have to find a larger space after this year if they maintain the growth rate.  They were like a perfect storm this year – the right guests at the right time.  They are in a small enough city that is close enough to other smaller cities and a college town that they can draw in enough people to sustain a good con.  They struck gold with landing Peter Davidson (Dr. Who #5) during the 50th anniversary of the show.  Nothing is more hot then Dr. Who right now.  They also got a guest that we found very hard to get – Orson Scott Card.  Along with Larry Elmore, they had a great line up of guests.

Just to give you an idea, Roanoke is a small city of about 100,000 people.  This 3rd year con had a pre-weekend badge count of 1100 people.  For comparison, a con I worked for in Charlotte, NC – a city of over 2 million –  did not get to 11oo until it’s 8th or 9th year.  That’s an accomplishment for this concom. It is also a sign that this con has staying power.

Like any new hotel, it is a little disorienting when you walk around but I got it figured out fairly quickly.  Again, the one thing I noticed is the tightness in the hallways and the smallness of the programming rooms, relative to the crowd I was already seeing.  I could tell they were going to get slammed this weekend.  And the worst part is that most people will want to stay inside because it’s too cold to hang out outside.  That’s the drawback of winter cons, though.  I highly recommend any winter con, when scouting out for space, find a hotel with some good “hang-out” space somewhere.

Opening Ceremonies was standing room only.  It was very fun.  Rich Sigfrit is always  a great masters of ceremonies.  Carla, the president of organization behind Mysticon, took the mic as well and she just has a great presence for cons.  She seems like a natural and probably one of the core reasons this con has done well.  She was nice enough to supply me and my family with badges so we could attend the con.  I guess my reputation after 11 years in fandom cons ended up being worth something.

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I’ll be honest, from a gaming point of view, this con is a little of a disappointment.  Unlike the fandom cons I worked, this one did not start with a foundation of gaming and build around it.  This had a good fandom base to start with.  It also had a LARP base.  I know that other cons in the Va area had a strong LARP presence and this one is no different.  I think I read at least three major LARPs playing here.

However, from a table top point of view, it does not allocate a lot of space for gaming.  I found a total of 8 tables spread throughout the hallways on the 1st floor and found gaming rooms in several of the suites on the 3rd and 5th floors.  There was even a pretty decent computer gaming room in one fairly large suite on the top floor.  They definitely utilized their space as best they could, but there are some drawbacks to that approach.  The primary drawback to this is noise.  You don’t always want noisy gamers on the sleeping room floors.  Just down the hallway, I can here an Are you a werewolf game going on, and if played right that can get downright noisy.  Not for any other reason than the game is darn fun.

I can not hang the con for the lack of gaming.  It’s just never been a strong focus of the con and I understand that.  But with its growth, gaming too will grow and they are going to need space for it.  Gaming can be a good cornerstone if not a good foundation.  Give them tables and they will come, I always say.  You just have to find the right space to include both gaming and fandom.  That’s not always easy, especially in a smaller city like Roanoke.

On the positive side, they definitely seem to have their act together.  Learning from various other cons’ mistakes and taking good advice from certain people, their program is good, their booklet is also clear and understandable, and they have great posters of what is going on in each room outside each door.  They have a good staff – better than what I had to work with in the past.  They are very friendly and equally as geeky as the Carolina fandom I am used to.  I felt quite welcome.

Onward to day two, where my daughter will wear her Hunger Games costume and my son will wear his Darth Vader costume.  We’ll see a few panels, perhaps the costume contest, maybe the auction and then who knows.  Lots of people here want to talk shop, of course, and I always end up doing some of that, even if I don’t want to.

Day 1 – After thoughts of first impressions

On Friday night, I found myself all too willing to give advice and pointers when I found concom standing around (which admittedly was rare because they were always busy).  I realized later just how arrogant that sounded so I made it my goal to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the weekend unless people asked.  I have 15 + years experience in running cons and especially running gaming at cons and/or running gaming cons and I guess when I see certain things I want to share.  But if I reverse that situation, I probably would not take it too kindly especially when I am in the heat of running the con itself.

That said, what is near and dear to my heart is gaming and from what I can see with what the gaming director has done, he has done the best he could with what he was given.  I admire that and compliment that.  He obviously has the full support of the con as they printed schedule posters for his stuff as well as programming, making everything appear seamless.

Sign-up occurs at the location of the game itself, which I implement for smaller events because it’s easier.  The GM handles the sign up.  Because he does not have a centralized location for gaming, the gaming director probably could not do it any other way, and I understand that.  That’s exactly how I would have handled it.

However, in my experience, that system doesn’t work as you get bigger.  You need a more centralized location to control the chaos that is gamers.  So when they move (and they will have to after this year), they need to keep that in mind.

One of the new things that people in the con business are pushing for is a simple mobile app for con schedules.  Enter Live Con!  Mysticon is using that. Retail statistics show that less than 2/3 of the US are on smart phones, which is still a good portion.  That’s probably higher in the geek demographic so it’s a safe bet that going mobile is not isolating as many people as it is helping.  Unfortunately, old flip-phoners like me are going to have  deal until we can afford the internet charges.

Mysticon 2013 – Day 2 – Peak Time

I call the Saturday of a three day con peak time.  If people are coming for the day, they are more likely to come for Saturday.  And boy did they.  As I expected, the hallways were a nightmare.  Their programming rooms are standing room only and they have to turn away people because the rooms were too full.  However, I have to say that the con staff is handling it the best they can and the attendees seem to be understanding.  I know these folks are under a lot of stress but on the outside they all seem to still be having fun.

Walking around in the early morning just to scout out things, the crowd had already started to form.  Registration looked a little overwhelmed and the hallways were getting tight.  I do not mean to paint that in a negative light, because the con staff is handling it pretty well.  I just see this as a little more than regular volunteers could handle.  Interestingly, they obviously knew it was a little more at least in the security area because it looked like they hired an outside company to run their security (or maybe they just rented uniforms).  All were very professional even when they told me my kids had the wrong badges.  For some odd reason, my 8 YO and my 5 YO needed a different color badge because they apparently could not tell they were kids?  Not sure.  All cons have those quirky little policies.

100_1909My kids donned their costumes, one of the primary reasons we came.  Taylor donned her Hunger Games “Katniss” costume and Keegan was Darth Vader.  However, the full helmet I bought him was “too heavy.” I walked around holding his helmet most of the morning.  Taylor had a lot of people recognize her costume which thrilled her.  I paid to have their pictures taken with the Batmobile.

We attended the cute magic show for kids, which my kids liked a lot.  It was more a silly magic show for kids but it had it’s funny moments.  It was nice of them to put it in main programming.  It was quite full by 10 minutes into it.

I stuck around for the Peter Davidson Q&A while the wife and kids went to the room.  My youngest, Aubrey, needed a nap.  The room was packed in minutes.  I am sure they had to turn people away.  People complained about the size of the room and all I could say was, “It’s the biggest room they have for programming.”  And other than the dealers room, it was the largest room.  They really had no idea what kind of crowds they were going to get.  Either that or they knew and could not do much about it.  More likely the latter.  But if they find a new place to go next year, people will know that it can only get better.

The interview with Peter Davidson was very entertaining and funny.  My good friend Davey Beauchamp interviewed him and he had some really fun questions.  Peter Davidson is a very fan friendly guest, treating every question like it was the first time he was asked it, even though I know he has heard the same inane fan-boy and fan-girl questions over and over again.

We tried to make the Match Game in main programming but once again it was standing room only.  My kids were not going to last in that one.  This is a drawback of small space and the massive attendance they got – many of the events are just not able to be attended by those who can’t wait in long lines or stay in crowded hallways.   So we went to eat dinner early with the intention of trying to get a seat in the costume contest.

Again I do not blame the con com for any of this.  They are a victim of their success.  I have been involved with a con with the same problem.  This kind of thing can make or break a con.  It depends on how it is handled.  From meeting the con staff and the power players behind the con, I can easily tell that this con has the brains to handle it well.  There may be a few people burned by the crowds and the packed rooms, but not enough to not come back.  There is nothing but a positive vibe throughout the con.  This honestly feels like the early years of the sci-fi con I used to be involved with.  The energy is very good.  The people are very enthusiastic.  And they are smart about their organization.  With what they have, this can only get better.

After dinner, we did make the costume contest, which was fun.  Nothing overwhelmingly stunning to me, but it was fun all the same.  Lots of pretty good costumes, fun little skits and generally good entertainment.  Once again, the room was packed.  After that, I went to the auction while my wife got the kids to the room to calm them down for bed.  I stayed long enough to bid on some gaming items I want to review and then left, but they had a good amount of stuff.  What I liked about it was the the cause was a scholarship fund for an aspiring young writer.  A very worthy cause.

I walked the con for a little while as the shift from early evening to late evening kicked in; when a father like me should have his kids in bed because the drunks, loud music and silly behavior begins.  And this con is no different.  At any con like this, all that positive energy and excitement has to have an outlet. Parties and general revelry are the usual solution for that.  For me, it’s usually getting in one last good game but that’s the gamer in me. However, I can’t abandon my family for 3 to 4 hours (not without permission at least).

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I realize now that I have nearly typed 2 and half sections about this con without mentioning the dealers room.  I buzzed through it multiple times and spent some money on myself as well as my kids (mostly my kids, to be honest).  It is smaller than I would have expected but for the space, they did well.  They had a variety of dealers including my good friend Dan from Walt’s Cards in Baltimore.  I know that I am going to spend money when he is at a con.   They had a great sword dealer and a few good “nick-nack” dealers.  There were also a few book dealers and a few anime dealers.  A fairly good balance for the space they had.  With the crowd they had here, the dealers should be happy.

Other features that people look for were also here. They had a con suite but you wouldn’t plan a meal around it.  It was strictly for hanging out and munching, which is where most con suites go these days.  It’s very difficult to find anyone willing to handle the con suite the way it should be handled and many cons simple lay out snacks and provide a place to hang out.  No prepared food, no crock pots of meals, no planned menus.  I did hear they had a Tardis cake at one time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr Who.  I have learned to not rely on the con suite because even if they have the personnel, you have the moochers that hang out there way too long and consume most of the food, leaving a family of 5 like I have to go out to eat.

The day ended fairly quietly as the kids settled down and I stayed up to chat with a few folks, networked, picked up a few things to review and wrote this review.  The third day won’t be much as I plan to leave fairly early but I am goint to get what I can in.

Mysticon 2013 – Final day

The final day was fairly short as I was not going to hang around for closing ceremonies.  I got up early enough though to join in on a “How to Run a Con” panel where I intended on being just an audience member but ended up being one of the panelists.  Nearly 15 years worth of con running experience with averaging 2 to 3 cons a year qualifies me as experienced, I suppose.  I appreciated the panelists allowing me to crash their panel.

After that, it was pretty much chatting with a few people about the business and then rounding up the kids and leaving.  I chatted with the outgoing president Carla Brindle and found we saw eye to eye on a lot of things in regards to convention running.  Because of strange con politics and limited space choices in the fair city of Roanoke, finding a new location may be harder than I thought.  There is another con in town and there is some pretty difficult circumstances that make more space challenging.  I can understand that.  They have an amazing relationship with the host hotel they have and they are willing to go above and beyond to keep the con there, including using heated tents to expand the space.  You have to admire that a little.

I am not one to nitpick about little things like the badge style, badge art,  program booklet layout or organization.  Each con has their own style and each person has their own likes and dislikes.  I can say that their con program booklet was better than others and well laid out in my opinion.  Between it, the program grid they handed out and the large posters on the wall, I was able to figure out what was going on wherever I was.  They do a solid job in programming and planning.

Also, as a side note, I did have a concern about the overflow hotel.  They were forced to arrange for an overflow hotel and were able to get the host hotel to shuttle attendees back and forth, which was very nice.  Because of our late decision to attend, my family almost had to stay in that hotel.  However, thanks to Carla’s wonderful hospitality, we last minute got a room in the host hotel.  However, I really felt sorry for those that were in the overflow.  I am not sure how well the shuttle worked out but I know from other cons, that it doesn’t always run when you want it to.  The hotel was on a pretty precarious hill in a pretty heavy traffic area, so your only choice was to take the shuttle.  Again, the con was presented with a hefty challenge and did what they could about it.  I am  just not sure a family like mine would be able to make it work well.  Thanks to Carla, though, for finding us a hotel room.

Another concern about the hotel I forgot to mention is that it is “pet friendly.”  Translated, this means that it is unfriendly to those of us with allergies.  Fortunately, they keep it clean enough that I did not completely shut down and our room was cleaned well enough.  Just be warned that your neighbors may have pets with them and it is recommend you bring your allergy meds if you are allergic.  Full disclosure – I was on two all weekend.

Overall, it is a good con with a lot of solid energy and passion for the genres.  They like to have fun and they truly look like they have fun together.  They get along better than most con committees that I have experienced.  That is a sign of longevity and strength.  My only major complaint is the gaming.  I would not rate this con as gamer-friendly, although they are trying to get there.  I had a short chat with the gaming director and told him he is doing as good a job as I would expect given his circumstances.  I would recommend they consider trimming some of the programming and perhaps dedicating some of the smaller rooms to gaming, instead of just placing them out in the hallways.  Thanks again to all those at Mysticon for a great con and good luck following that up next year.

Codex Con Ratings:
(1-10 where 1 is horrible and 10 is perfect!)

Location: 5
Programming: 8
Guests: 10
Gaming: 3
Dealers Room: 6
Overall: 6.4