I go to a lot of conventions throughout the year. In 2015, I’m planning to attend 6 cons, including Gen Con and Metatopia. I’m a very outgoing person, and I’ve been going to geeky/gaming conventions and game days since before I was old enough to drive. Most of the gamers I meet are more introverted than I am, and the schedule I set for myself at a convention is exhausting to the people I’m with. Everyone has their own approach to conventions, and you’ll want to adapt yours to your own needs. In this article, I’m going to talk about a typical convention weekend for me and hope it’s useful for planning your own cons.
My favorite conventions are local conventions with between 200 and 2000 people, and I use different strategies for different sized conventions. For a mega-convention like Gen Con, I pace my time very carefully to avoid burnout, but I want to make sure I get a lot of bang for my buck (whether that’s a financial “buck” or less tangible payment in physical, emotional, and creative energy).
The first day of any convention weekend is spent in travel. If I’m lucky, I arrive around 2 PM, which means I miss the first session or two of events, but I’m in good company with other travelers. Sometimes I drive, but for conventions more than 5 hours away, I’ll fly. I’m lucky to live in Las Vegas, where there’s usually a non-stop flight to my destination. After I arrive, I pick up my badge first-- if I’m arriving late, this is especially important, since the hotel check-in desk is staffed 24/7, but the badge pickup might close as early as 6 or 7 PM, even if there are late-night events.
Depending on how RPG signups are allocated, I might go there next. At Gen Con, RPG pre-registration is done months before the event, and the chances of me getting into a game I didn’t pre-register for are slim, though I’m welcome to show up at a table and try. At a smaller convention like Strategicon, pre-registration only fills half the spaces, so I can go down to the RPG room and sign into a binder for those games. Other cons have a lottery system, but GMs might get a priority pass or some other weighted system for getting into a game.
Then it’s time to check into my hotel and take a shower. I like to look through the program book and see what I’ve missed-- most cons are pretty bad at updating their websites before the event, so I hope the program book has better documentation. For example, there’s a convention in Las Vegas coming up that bills itself as a video game and anime con, but anime viewing isn’t anywhere on the schedule. The website lists something called “Green Room,” booked for the entire day on Saturday, but there is no way of knowing what that is or what it means, because they didn’t include any description of the event. I’m hoping that “Green Room” is a secret code for “we’re going to watch anime in this room over here,” but I’m not sure I’m willing to spend $25 to find out and be disappointed.
If the convention isn’t too large or rowdy, I’ll stay at the hosting hotel. If it’s big, or I can’t get a room there, I’ll go further out. Ideally, I’d like to stay across the street-- staying at a different hotel gives me a mental and physical break from the convention, and I’m enough of an extrovert that, without an external pressure, I’ll stay swimming in the gamers indefinitely.
Eventually, it’s time to head out to the convention. I like to get in a casual board game or two while I’m at conventions, so I might check out the library with some friends, or see if anyone brought something good to play. Red November is a favorite of mine, because it’s cooperative, silly-fun, under an hour, and supports up to 7 players. So few games support that many players, it’s refreshing to find one that does. Also, I can play it with a fake Russian accent for added comedy.
Throughout the weekend, my schedule falls into a fairly predictable pattern. I’ll wake up and get breakfast early-- usually around 7 or 8 AM, long before the first session of games is due to start, so I’m awake and alert for the day. I might try to get into a morning game. I always leave big gaps in my schedule so I can get some food, be social with newly-met friends, join pick-up games, and walk around the vendor hall.
Ah, the vendor hall! If it’s a HUGE event like Gen Con, I have to schedule an hour or two every day, and if I’m smart, I do those in the middle of the morning or mid-afternoon-- the hall at lunchtime is always too crowded to really enjoy. I can’t do the whole thing at once-- I get sensory overload and fatigued. I’ll usually do a sweep early in the convention, see what’s interesting, and pick up business cards. I write down a note about something I saw there that I liked, and the price on the back of the card. Later, when I’m winding down at the hotel, I’ll decide on souvenirs and gifts I plan to buy.
I always sign up to GM at cons, so I make sure not to plan on playing anything immediately before or after it. After I’ve run a demanding game, I want to relax, get some food, maybe decompress and do a post-mortem on how the game went. I’ve made the mistake of scheduling a game after running, and I find myself skipping that game entirely. This is one reason why cons like Gen Con, which stagger their start times are good. Smaller cons will have “slots,” or set times where games will start and finish. My policy of not scheduling back-to-back means I miss up to two additional game slots when I run a game in between them. In those cases, I try to back my schedule up to a meal time, and bracket the game with a shorter board game session or a vendor hall visit.
One of the “hidden gems” of geek conventions are the seminars and workshops. Seminars usually cover topics in gaming. They might be social-issue topics, but usually I go to the seminars about how to write a game, or how a game was invented, or even just the process of running a successful crowdfunding campaign. At Comic Con, I’ve walked past huge lines of people waiting hours to see the actors from a popular show, only to walk into a panel with the writers of the show’s original comic book, where they talk about what really went into creating it. I keep a notebook with me at these events and take notes about ideas and suggestions. I might never even look at them, but just the act of writing it down helps me remember later.
Workshops are usually more hands-on than seminars. Game design workshops walk through creating some aspect of a game, and a large number of conventions have crafting and DIY workshops. This year, for example, I’m signed up for a chainmail workshop to make an armored teddy bear at Gen Con. There’s a little fee for materials, but it’s a nice break from sitting at a round, tablecloth-covered table for 4 hours at a stretch.
A typical RPG table at a convention is a round table, surrounded by hotel chairs, and covered by a tablecloth. The edge of the table doesn’t seem sharp, but after about 8 hours of resting on the table, my forearms and elbows are sore and almost bruised. This is known as “contact stress” in ergonomics, and I manage it by bringing a knitting project to the table and working on it intermittently in my lap, which forces my hands off the table and away from that pressure point.
Around dinner time, I go back to the hotel for some food (I often make use of in-room fridge and microwave to cut costs down) and a break. And a shower! At conventions, I often shower twice a day. I live in a desert, so I sweat more when I travel to humid climates. I know my fellow gamers appreciate me not reeking. I also use scented products very sparingly during convention weekends-- nothing is quite as “special” as sitting at a crowded game table for 4 hours with Mr. Axe Body Spray.
In the evening, I’ve usually signed up to play a game, sometimes a larp. If there’s any costuming at the convention, Saturday night is where I’ll put my costume on and participate with that. Depending on the convention, I might bring a glass of wine from the hotel bar to sip during the game, and I like to bring some kind of snacks, either for myself, or to share.
Evening games run till about midnight, and by then, I’m well and truly done. I head home for 6-8 hours of sleep. Get up at 7 or 8, have coffee and a shower, and head out to do it all again.
The last day of the convention is usually spent doing a last round of the vendor hall, packing up, and getting out. However, I sometimes run a game on that last morning, something extremely light-weight and fun-- the kind of game that is easy to play and very, very silly, like Land of Og, Goblin Quest, or Vesna Thaw. Playing single-word-vocabulary cavemen or giant fighting robots is about all I’m up for on a Monday morning after 3 days of gaming, and I’ve found my fellow players feel the same way.
After such a game, I’m completely burnt and tired enough that waiting in an airport or driving on a long, straight interstate highway is about all my brain can handle.
For online conventions like Contessa Online, I skip nearly all of this. A typical online convention weekend for me is to run a game or two on Saturday morning and hope to get in to play a game in the afternoon before the rest of my normally-busy weekend takes over. I look at online cons as an opportunity to introduce more people to games I’m excited about, or to playtest games and adventures that I’m actively working on.
One thing I never plan for enough are the many visits with friends and colleagues who I might bump into at the vendor hall, drop in on at a game, or have a meal with and chit-chat about games, game design, or just the cool books and blogs we’re reading. It’s one reason I’m looking forward to the Contessa game night and party at Gen Con this year-- special time set aside to meet and greet with cool gamers like you! See you in Indy!