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.