What The World Needs Now Is More Gaming Conventions
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  • What The World Needs Now Is More Gaming Conventions



    Gaming convention season is upon us. Origins Game Fair will be upon us starting June 14th, and Gen Con starts just a little over two months later on August 17th. Today, I am going to throw a bunch of my thoughts and tips about conventions and see what sticks.

    First off…who can believe that it is already almost the middle of June? Wasn't it just January? My booking for travel and hoteling for Gen Con has been set for a couple of months now, but it is sort of mind boggling that we are now two months out. I guess the fact that my Gen Con calendar is already starting to fill up should be a hint for that. I wish that I was going to Origins Game Fair next weekend. I went for years when I lived in Cleveland (since Columbus was practically in our back yard), but since moving back to the South, it has made attending more difficult and a lot more expensive. I liked Origins because it was a more "play" intensive convention than Gen Con. If you haven't been to both of these conventions, that point might be a little difficult to parse.

    For me, Gen Con is a fun time, but it is definitely more of a consumer-facing trade show than Origins. This isn't a bad thing, in fact for those people who don't have local gaming store (or who's local gaming stores don't have very deep shelves) something like this can be good. While most people go to Gen Con to play games, for many it is secondary to the fact that they can see and buy all the new games, many that they've probably not hear of previously. Gaming is a consumer industry, so being able to buy things is a good thing. Origins, however, isn't as focused on the sales side and, although it seems to be changing as Gen Con prices increase, there isn't the publisher presence that you get at Gen Con. Both conventions have their strengths and weakness, and they appeal to people for different reasons. I do think that the years I was able to attend both I was able to get a more balanced idea of what was happening in the industry.

    Next, I want to throw out the idea that we really need more conventions at the local and regional level, particularly ones that embrace as wide of a cross-section of gamers as possible. I don't just mean this from a diversity angle, although that is very, very important, but I also mean that conventions need to dig deeper than just the fans of the top selling couple of role-playing games. There's a lot of games out there, representing them as well as games like D&D and Pathfinder is a step in the direction of getting a wider audience. The first convention that I GMed for, way back in the Stone Age of the 90s, was a fairly large Ohio gaming convention (that no longer exists). I gamed with the guys who ran the gaming HQ, because they were all friends with one of my roommates of the time. They asked me to GM for the convention because I was the only person they knew who played games that weren't D&D. All of the events that they wanted me to run were sanctioned RPGA events that had sign ups…but no one to run them. It was an interesting selection of games, too. I ended up running the West End Games' versions of Star Wars and Paranoia, the classic TSR edition of Marvel Super-Heroes and R. Talsorian Games' Dream Park game. Except maybe for Dream Park, none of these were unknown factors.

    Conventions have gotten a lot better since then, but the non-D&D games need to be more of an afterthought.

    Anyway, that is a digression, but it fits into talking about local/regional conventions. One thing that I learned after moving back to the South is that gaming conventions have their highest concentrations in the Midwest and the Northeast. This makes sense, gaming started in the Midwest and there are a lot of people in the Northeast, but it leaves out a lot of people interested in gaming, or who could be interested in gaming. With the growth of tabletop gaming over the last few years, we haven't really seen an equivalent increase in gaming conventions…outside of the places that already have a lot of conventions. Now, we're seeing more conventions popping up in the Pacific Northwest, but honestly that's even less feasible for travel to than the Midwest for a lot of gamers.

    I live in Florida, and our economy is pretty much based around tourism. Within two hours of where I live, in two different directions, there are two major convention centers that regularly handle conventions that are the same size as Gen Con, and larger. Tampa has a strong regional comic convention in the Tampa Bay Comic-Con, as well as growing ones like MegaCon Tampa. Orlando has MegaCon, Spooky Empire and is one of the homes for Star Wars Celebration. To the far South, there are a number of convention centers around the Daytona and Miami areas, all of which regularly support a number of conventions of sizes equal to, or larger than, shows like Gen Con. As much as I would love for Gen Con to move from Indianapolis to Orlando, I know that it isn't feasible for a lot of people, for the same reasons that the Pacific Northwest isn't.

    The other nice thing about regional conventions is that, the Florida weather means that when it is icy and snowy in other parts of the country, the weather is really nice down here. Other regional conventions can offer benefits specific to their areas as part of the package of their show.

    However, that doesn't mean that a local or regional convention couldn't grow up into these facilities to be something equivalent to Origins Game Fair. According to their Wikipedia page, Origins had an attendance of 15,938 in 2015. Honestly, that isn't that high of a bar for attendance for a convention to reach, with a few years of hard work and good conventions. It surprises me that, for such a fun convention, Origins has such relatively low attendance numbers.

    This is why I think that strengthening the regional gaming convention scene is easier than people would think. Do I think that it is feasible for a gaming convention to have an attendance of 15K out of the gate? No, and I don't think that most people starting a convention can really handle those sorts of numbers right off the bat. I do think that a first year convention with an attendance of 500-1000 people is feasible to shoot for.

    I want a stronger area gaming convention scene mostly for selfish reasons: I want to be able to go to some conventions, meet people and throw some dice, and I would like to be able to do it without having to hop onto an airplane. I'm sure that I am not alone in this. Not only that, but a thriving local/regional gaming scene supported by thriving, growing conventions means that there are going to be more gamers in an area. More gamers is always a win. It means more people to potentially game with, as well as more customers for the industry. More customers means that the industry has more money to play with when it comes to making things for all of us. Conventions, gamers, customers, and publishers. All of this is interrelated, and more of one thing leads to more of another.

    Now, we can all tell convention horror stories, so we know that all of this means that we have to have the quality as well as the quantity of conventions. Just having more conventions isn't enough. Like I talked about earlier in this piece, there needs to be a depth of games offered, the conventions need to appeal to as broad of a base as possible, and they need to have methods in place to make sure that everyone is comfortable and being well-treated by both vendors and their fellow gamers.

    There is probably a lot to unpack in this article, and I hope that it starts some conversations about getting more conventions in more areas. I think that a thriving convention scene is intimately tied to a thriving gaming scene, which is intimately tied to a thriving publishing scene. While I talked about practical examples from my more immediate area, because those are the places that I know, hopefully people will see the potential for conventions in their areas as well. As attendance is growing at conventions across the board, this means that there is going to be room for more.
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    Comments 47 Comments
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Agreed. Cons can be a heavy organizational lift, but they're great ways to reward and grow the overall tabletop community. There's a local con for which the organizers do a handful of one-day fundraising game days throughout the year, to help build seed money to get the thing off the ground each year. It dropped off some during the recession, but has been steadily growing over the last few years.

      RinCon (because the Rincon Mountains are on the east end of town..clever, huh?)

      Check it out, and if you feel like coming to Tucson in late September, by all means come. We draw people from Phoeniex (2 hours away) and some from SoCal, too.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      In the computing world, security depends critically on trust authorities issuing certificates of authenticity.

      So many convention horror stories to me revolve around when you sign up for a game, you never know just what you are going to get. Trust worthy game masters seem to be in short supply. And this goes back to the story about 'professional DMs' from a few weeks back.

      There are plenty of fan communities though that maintain relatively high bars and self-police themselves regarding authenticity. If you want to claim to be an actual knight or master in the SCA, the process of obtaining that title is pretty darn rigorous. Fundamentally though, we don't have anything like the RPGA was supposed to be and never really have (not even the RPGA). The reason we don't have more Cons I'm convinced is because we don't have more communities. Cons grow out of active communities. They are the big annual parties that active communities throw, principally for themselves, but also to draw more people into the community. In Columbus for example, there is a large active board gaming community, of which Origins is simply the more visible resulting representation.

      Look at it this way: do you know all the active GMs in town, and could you say which of them you wish you had time to spend at their tables? Solve that problem, and the world will get more quality conventions.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I am lucky enough to live in central Illinois and have a bunch of conventions within driving distance (Gen Con, Gary Con, Who's Yer Con, Winter War, etc). I believe smaller conventions have trouble getting the word out more than anything else. Just recently I discovered a small convention (Farmageddon) 20 minutes from my house that was run by a local boy scout troop as a fundraiser. I discovered it through the Adventurer's League website.

      I don't have high expectations for GM's at smaller conventions. The fact that they usually are MUCH less expensive than the larger conventions makes it tolerable when you end up in with a bad GM. That being said, I have probably had better luck with GM's at smaller conventions than I have at Gen Con.
    1. Nine Hands's Avatar
      Nine Hands -
      My wife and I run Open Gaming Convention in New Hampshire. We've always had a large number of non-D&D games available. One year we wanted to rename the con due to all of the Cthulhu games that ran.

      This year I counted only 7 events that were D&D or Pathfinder in our current list (which does not include Pathfinder Society and Adventurers League yet) out of 41 role playing events. Over the years we've noticed that most of our games are non-standard. This year I am running two completely homebrewed games (A Mekton clone and a Fate/Cortex mashup) along with some D&D and Dresden Files. My nephew is running 10 events and 1 of them is D&D.

      The con scene in New England is great overall (TotalCon, Carnage, and OGC) are full of non-D&D events.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      The convention scene in Atlanta is focused on small, mostly one or two day store or local venue type events. Though there is Secret Mission con and most of the non-gamer specific cons (JordanCon, DragonCon, Momocon...) have gaming going on. It is on my to do list, but it is not as easy as one might think. In general, running a for profit con would be much harder than running a non-profit convention.
    1. Undermountain's Avatar
      Undermountain -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      In the computing world, security depends critically on trust authorities issuing certificates of authenticity.
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      So many convention horror stories to me revolve around when you sign up for a game, you never know just what you are going to get. Trust worthy game masters seem to be in short supply. And this goes back to the story about 'professional DMs' from a few weeks back. ... Look at it this way: do you know all the active GMs in town, and could you say which of them you wish you had time to spend at their tables? Solve that problem, and the world will get more quality conventions.


      Second that for more "good" GMs at conventions. Not sure how that could be handled, since "good" is so subjective. But I played in ~10 games at GenCon last year, and frankly, only one was fun (for me). I don't mean to come across as a jerk, maybe others were having more fun than me, not sure. But this year I haven't signed up for any and probably won't. I agree about the communities. The funny thing is that there are a ton of people who play games around here (Boston) but you're right that there aren't any real "communities" per se, just a lot of individuals floating from group to group.
    1. Lanefan -
      A few off-the-cuff responses to the article:

      - you don't have to get on a plane to get from Florida to Indiana - it's an easy 2-day drive (or a tough one-day marathon) and you have way more flexibility around when you go and what you take with you. And bring back.
      - while more local cons would be nice, I personally find that having been to GenCon a few times has spoiled me, and a local con now just seems...local.
      - moving GenCon to Orlando might be good for the writer but would be annoying for me. Also, having been to Orlando it didn't seem to have the same downtown cluster of hotels etc. that Indy has; or did I just miss them?
      - I for one like the shopping aspect of GenCon, as I far prefer buying something in person rather than online and where I live the selection is usually...well, let's just say a bit limited. It's easy to get whatever's new here, but anything old and-or obscure is a real challenge.

      My only wish regarding cons is that GaryCon - which I'd love to go to - was either much closer to (or on) the west coast or at a better time of year for long-range driving (March in the mountains can be...interesting). Flying's just too much of a pain in the @$$ these days, never mind that one still realistically needs to rent a car to get to Lake Geneva from Chicago or Milwaukee or wherever.

      Lanefan
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post

      My only wish regarding cons is that GaryCon - which I'd love to go to - was either much closer to (or on) the west coast or at a better time of year for long-range driving (March in the mountains can be...interesting). Flying's just too much of a pain in the @$$ these days, never mind that one still realistically needs to rent a car to get to Lake Geneva from Chicago or Milwaukee or wherever.

      Lanefan
      I went to Gary Con for the first time last year and I enjoyed it more than Gen Con. If I could only make one convention a year, I would pick Gary Con over Gen Con.

      The Wisconsin weather in March does sort of suck, but it is nice that is doesn't conflict with anything else.
    1. Lanefan -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I went to Gary Con for the first time last year and I enjoyed it more than Gen Con. If I could only make one convention a year, I would pick Gary Con over Gen Con.

      The Wisconsin weather in March does sort of suck, but it is nice that is doesn't conflict with anything else.
      It's not the weather in Wisconsin I'm concerned about, it's the weather I have to go through to get to Wisconsin. And back.
    1. Bravesteel's Avatar
      Bravesteel -
      I live in the Kansas City area, as you can imagine, I am at a disadvantage no matter where a convention is held! We do have a local convention called KantCon here that I haven't been to, but I think I'll play in sme 5E games this year, and volunteer as well. I really do feel like you have to help make things happen and not wait for stuff to happen for you. On a side note, I'd love to go to Gary Con, but the cost is a bit prohibitive to go just by myself.
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      Quote Originally Posted by Undermountain View Post
      Second that for more "good" GMs at conventions. Not sure how that could be handled, since "good" is so subjective.
      It would be handled subjectively. You'd create a council of existing high trust GMs. Matt Mercer or whatever. That council would issue a subjective certificate to other high trust GMs based on rules for becoming a high trust GM, including presumably having ran a game for a high trust GM and the high trust GM having ran a game for a certain period of time and having obtained signatures from players as a resume. Once you had a certificate of particular rank, you could issue a certificate's on behalf of the organization. Presumably you also have a revocation process where you could file a complaint against a GM, and if the complaint appeared to have merit, then you could go through a review process.

      Multiple organizations could work concurrently in the ideal situation. That way, if one organization got hijacked by some agenda or personal vendetta or if one organization got to pay to play about its licensing, it wouldn't effect the whole community.

      Issuing organizations would have a nice website where you could go validate someone's credentials based on a name and member number, and you could pay a due to get a nice badge sent to you.

      It's all subjective, but there are ways to make subjective evaluations somewhat trust worthy. Consider something like Angie's List or Yelp. Collectively, subjective evaluations often have merit.
    1. MichaelSomething's Avatar
      MichaelSomething -
      Wouldn't most DMs reject that type of regulation?

      Sent from my VS990 using EN World mobile app
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      I enjoy smaller, local Conventions. Con of the North is great, because it is in town, I can go for two of the three days without taking time off for work. I can even work around family events by registering for evening events and still get a lot of gaming time. The merchant sections are pretty lame, but some of the local game stores use the convention to get rid of slow-moving stock, so you can get some good discounts.

      Mainly I go to play new games and, as someone who is always the DM, it is nice to play some 5e as a player.

      I do find the desire for (1) more local conventions and (2) better GMs to be at odds. Not because local GMs are going to be bad. All GenCon GMs are local GMs in their home towns. But if you raise the bar too high, you are not going to have enough GMs. Without GMs running games, you don't have a gaming convention.

      I've thought of getting some friends together and GMing enough games that we can get our own side room at Con of the North. But it is already difficult to make the commitment with so many other responsibilities, that I've not taken the jump yet. If I had to go through the kind of vetting process discussed in this thread, I wouldn't even think of trying.

      It seems we want professional GMs without having to pay the extra cost that would be necessary to offer perks or pay to attract them. At the same time, while I strongly believe that the paid GM model would work great for on-line VTT games and some in-person events, I'm not sure how well it would work at a convention. I worry that the heightened expectations of players that have to pay the extra registration or event-ticket fees would lead to an insufferable level of entitlement at the table.

      I go to my local Con to meet other hobbyists and have a good time. It is rare that a GM is so bad that I can't have a good time. I can't think of a single time that I had a GM so bad that I would rather not have played. It is like teachers—part of the secret of finding a good instructor is to be a good student.

      I argue that we should be using local Cons to support fledgling game masters, which in turn will grow and deepen the local gaming community. Instead of trying to get the most experienced GMs to run games, give incentives to new GMs and have your experienced GMs join as players and give feedback. The experienced GMs will likely appreciate the opportunity to be players for once.

      I would go so far as to say that the local Con should have a program where they give free admission to any GM running at least one game, who has never GM'd at a Con before. Perhaps have a program pairing new GMs with experience co-GMs. Have the newbie GM do most of the work with the co-GM there to help make rulings so that the new GM doesn't have to waste time looking up rules when he or she is stuck. The co-GM could also play the NPCs (see, e.g., the Dragon Friends podcast).

      Giving GMs experience, constructive feedback, and support will go much further towards increasing the number of quality GMs than a credentialing bureaucracy.
    1. Mortellan's Avatar
      Mortellan -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I went to Gary Con for the first time last year and I enjoyed it more than Gen Con. If I could only make one convention a year, I would pick Gary Con over Gen Con.

      The Wisconsin weather in March does sort of suck, but it is nice that is doesn't conflict with anything else.
      Ditto all that. (also from central Illinois) Having gone to Gencon 10-12 times I felt as if gaming was slipping farther down my list of stuff to do in Indy (which I love). At Garycon I did a TON of a gaming and you ran into authors and artists at every turn. Much more intimate.
    1. mflayermonk -
      Ten years ago GenCon had a West Coast GenCon, Europe Gencon and Australia Gencon.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      So many convention horror stories to me revolve around when you sign up for a game, you never know just what you are going to get. Trust worthy game masters seem to be in short supply. And this goes back to the story about 'professional DMs' from a few weeks back. .
      For myself, I solved that problem by finding a core of about 30 or 40 ENworlders/CircvsMaximvs crowd and getting together with them yearly for a mini-con. however, I admit that's not a solution for larger conventions. In fact, outside of organized play with a storng code, I'm not sure you CAN solve it, and even then you lose some of what makes it special, namely mutual trust towards a good play experience.
    1. Richard Osterhout's Avatar
      Richard Osterhout -
      Quote Originally Posted by Lanefan View Post
      A few off-the-cuff responses to the article:

      - moving GenCon to Orlando might be good for the writer but would be annoying for me. Also, having been to Orlando it didn't seem to have the same downtown cluster of hotels etc. that Indy has; or did I just miss them?
      you missed them. also, conventions like Megacon tend to be held down in the Orange County Convention Center, which is just a hop/skip/jump from the parks.

      There are approximately 144,125 hotel rooms in Orlando, Florida. This is the second-highest number in the United States, behind Las Vegas at 152,275 rooms.
    1. Richard Osterhout's Avatar
      Richard Osterhout -
      Quote Originally Posted by mflayermonk View Post
      Ten years ago GenCon had a West Coast GenCon, Europe Gencon and Australia Gencon.
      and even before that they held a Gencon South in Jacksonville FL!!!
    1. Richard Osterhout's Avatar
      Richard Osterhout -
      Quote Originally Posted by Celebrim View Post
      It would be handled subjectively. You'd create a council of existing high trust GMs. Matt Mercer or whatever. That council would issue a subjective certificate to other high trust GMs based on rules for becoming a high trust GM, including presumably having ran a game for a high trust GM and the high trust GM having ran a game for a certain period of time and having obtained signatures from players as a resume. Once you had a certificate of particular rank, you could issue a certificate's on behalf of the organization. Presumably you also have a revocation process where you could file a complaint against a GM, and if the complaint appeared to have merit, then you could go through a review process.
      well, the RPGA had something similar, and had different "levels" for GMs. The highest level, the Paragons, now have a lot of their members actually writing adventures and novels for various game companies.

      I believe the Pathfinder Society has a similar program, where the upper levels require that you run a game under the eyes of a senior member before being elevated to the next "rank"
    1. Richard Osterhout's Avatar
      Richard Osterhout -
      To the OP -

      Welcome to Central Florida!! back in the 90s and early 2000s, we had a vibrant gaming community. I was part of SunQuest, and we ran a gaming convention in Orlando for a couple of years. We constantly had issues with finding GMs to run games, especially those other than D&D. As a former campaign director for Shadowrun, I pumped up the presence of that game as well. At most, I don't think we had more than about 300 on our best year. We also held the con in late January so as to appeal to the rest of the country "in the cold". We even had some guests like Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn, artists like Ruth Thompson, and others. We had a variety of games, but most were through the RPGA. We also had a dealer's room (for local vendors - Wizards wasn't going to come to a small con) and an art show. Other conventions might have as many as 10-12 tables of gaming such as Oasis and Necronomicon, but no where in size to SunQuest. We eventually got bought out by Megacon to run the gaming program for them, but by that time, most of us had burned out trying to keep the con up and running. Challenges with money (con space is expensive!!), worries about not having enough attendees, and not having enough GMs, takes a toll. If you want games other than D&D, you not only have to have GMs for them, but players as well. This is what has happened at Megacon. The person currently in charge of gaming is like a regional director for Pathfinder. He only has so many tables. He's not going to waste a table for Traveller for a GM to just sit there and have only one player show up, when he could be using it for another table of Pathfinder. For the games, it's a cart/horse problem - for the space, a money problem.

      A new player is rising however, with Dice Tower Con making a mark. It's currently held in early July, but has doubled in attendance every year. It's primarily board games, but they now have some RPGs and mega-games ("Look to the Skies" and others) as well. I'll be attending for the first time this year and see how it goes...
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