Check Out The Scene – Dragon Con 2021

From September 2nd through the 6th, 2021, Dragon Con returned in Atlanta, Georgia. Along with 42,000 fans, I attended the first major North American great geek gathering since 2019. In this article, I’ll share some of the experience of Dragon Con 2021, quotes from attending professionals in the tabletop games industry, and some of the challenges the con con faced.

Dragon Con 2021 September 9th - Gooey Cube Booth, Alphinius Goo, and Egg Embry.jpg

Gooey Cube Booth, Alphinius Goo, and Egg Embry
Note: Attending conventions is a personal decision. While the pandemic continues, there are additional concerns when it comes to travel and face-to-face interactions. When attending a convention, EN World encourages everyone to take all precautions to ensure their safety.


Dragon Con is an annual convention known for its geek party atmosphere with emphasis on celebrities, cosplay, fan panels, their art show, comics, tabletop gaming, professional wrestling, and more. In other words, if it’s geek fan culture, it’s at Dragon Con. The convention is hosted in five of Atlanta’s largest hotels and a multi-building business complex. It’s huge, it’s sprawling, and it has something for every kind of fandom. If the average geek convention is like a holiday celebration where you see friends and have fun together, Dragon Con is the Mardi Gras of geek conventioning where you see friends and party in full cosplay.

After going online for 2020 due to Covid, Dragon Con 2021 saw 42,000 in-person attendees (down from the 2019 high of 85,000). That’s a notable fall off in attendance, but in-line percentage-wise with UK Games Expo's 2021 attendance decrease. Conventions are returning in 2021, but they’re not back up to their pre-pandemic attendance yet. While the pandemic continues to be a tragedy, Dragon Con took the precaution of requiring all attendees to either show their vaccination card or show a negative test administered in the last 72 hours. In addition, masks were required throughout the convention and that rule was enforced and obeyed, in general. Despite some push back over these requirements, in North America, Dragon Con’s return represents the largest geek culture gathering since Covid landed in the United States in 2020.*

Dragon Con 2021 September 9th - Dedren Snead, Subsume.jpg

Dedren Snead, Subsume​


How did the convention go in general, and how did the gaming portion go in particular? That’s a question best left to the attendees and guests. Dragon Con 2021’s gaming guest list included Steve Jackson, Kenneth Hite, Alphinius Goo, Dedren Snead, Devon Chulick, and more. Among the retailers that attended, Norse Foundry and Chessex had large booths. Chessex offered Dragon Con dice to fans. Several of the guests shared their thoughts on the con and what it was like to be back at a convention after a long absence.

“This was my first Dragon Con and, despite the restrictions because of Covid, it was an amazing time. You can feel the sense of community between attendees, vendors, guests, volunteers, and convention staff. Everyone was so welcoming. I can’t wait to go back to build on connections made this year and make even more next year.” - Doug Shute, Victory Condition Gaming. Doug had an active table offering Free League’s award-winning ALIEN RPG. Free League’s production values are outstanding and Doug’s table spoke for itself.

“My first ever showing at Dragon Con was superlative: I’ve never seen any show treat artists as well as the DC Art Show treated us. Also, seeing so many colleagues after a year+ of seclusion was like a big, warm hug from my artist family. Lastly, it is always fantastic to connect with fans, even more so when I haven’t met any in a long time” - Bruce Brenneise, freelance illustrator. Clients include: Monte Cook Games, Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The Gathering, D&D), Wyrmwood Gaming, Hunters Entertainment, Hammerdog Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and many more. At the art show, Bruce’s banner caught my eye with the simple line, “Official artist for Numenera.”

“We had doubts about DragonCon this year, but what a wonderful surprise! The fans who attended were the kinds of fans we love the most, the ones who really wanted to be there. We had better sales than we did in 2019, in fact, despite the lower attendance. Everyone was considerate and mindful of the situation, and we had a great con! Thanks to everyone who made that possible!” - Chris A. Jackson, author of fantasy and science fiction. Chris has multiple original novels in addition to licensed fiction for Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Iron Kingdoms, and Arkham Horror. He authored Pathfinder Tales: Pirate’s Honor, among others, and his banner showcased that title. Like Bruce Brenneise above, it was his booth banner and its connection to Pathfinder that drew me over to talk to Chris.

Dragon Con is always an amazing experience and 2021 was no different. I hadn't realized how much I missed connecting with the fans I only see once a year in Atlanta. I'm grateful for everyone who stopped by my booth to buy art and share their joy for being back at the convention we love so very much.” - Amanda Makepeace, Artist/Illustrator. Awards include: Chesley Awards, Dragon Con art show, and art for ENnie Award winning projects. Her work reflects a great love of nature, magic, and fantasy.

“What always makes Dragon Con so great (and strange) is that it is a mix of everything you could ever possibly want out of a convention. No matter what part of geekdom/nerdom that you want to embrace, there are likely to be hundreds, if not thousands of your new friends who also share your passion. And this year was no different. As to a personal highlight, it would probably have to be the pair of Smallville panels my wife and I attended. To hear the cast members reflect on a show that effectively launched the CW DC Universe was very cool.” - John McGuire, author of The Echo Effect, The Crossing, The Dark That Follows, Hollow Empire, The Gilded Age, and Love’s Labour’s Liberated, an RPG zine for 5e. John and I worked on projects together including Love’s Labour’s Liberated.

Dragon Con 2021 September 9th - Chris A. Jackson, author.jpg

Chris A. Jackson, author​


I’ve written about the return of conventioning in 2021 at d20 Radio (here, here, and here) as well as past conventions (Dragon Con 2019, Gen Con 2019 [here and here], Origins Game Fair 2019, among others). With Dragon Con’s doors reopened after such a long break, I was excited to return to the world of face-to-face gatherings. While the convention was fun, it was not without hiccups. Amid the world’s new reality, some obstacles stood out. These aren’t a condemnation of Dragon Con, merely notes about what they and other large conventions can expect in 2021.

Covid. Let’s get the obvious factor out of the way. The pandemic is real, and Dragon Con took huge steps to ensure attendee health and safety. To acquire a badge, attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test within the last 72 hours. All guests and staff had to wear masks unless they were drinking or eating. From my experience, the number of Dragon Con attendees wearing masks orbited 100%. Those that pulled down their mask did it for sustenance or a quick photo op, but then the mask went right back up. This convention happens in multiple hotels and a multi-building business center and each night common areas were cleaned and disinfected. Dragon Con and the host facilitates worked to avoid the disease and infection. Those precautions were clear and welcomed by those that chose to attend.

Despite the solid work, based on social media posts on Dragon Con’s Facebook group, some fans did test positive for the disease post-convention. As I’m writing this, it’s the seventh day after the con ended so it’s hard to say if this led to a notable increase in the disease or not. On Dragon Con’s social media, there is open, clear, voluntary communication among the attendees about their test results. Using that anecdotal evidence, the number of positive tests reported are well below the general infection rate. To that with a grain of salt as the key word is “anecdotal” and not “scientific.” All we can do is hope that their precautions averted a super spreader event.

Volunteers. On peak years, Gen Con has 60,000 to 65,000 attendees annually pre-pandemic. For $10 or $15, Gen Con mails you your convention badge, letter, and any tickets for events you purchase. Alternately, you may pick up your badge at the con. Dragon Con, at 85,000 attendees in pre-pandemic times, only has in-person badge pick up. 85,000 people is a huge number of guests to process through, one-by-one. In my experience, Dragon Con badge pick ups can be as short as 5 minutes or as long as an hour on a normal year. On Thursday, badge pick up lines were between 1.5 hours and 3 hours. As mentioned, Dragon Con’s attendance fell to 42,000. While this allowed for an open, easily navigable convention for those that did attend, it did create some pain points. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than among the volunteers. 2021 saw a massive decrease in the number of volunteers for Dragon Con. This led to the long queues to pick up badges.

It’s worth mentioning, a decrease in the number of attendees and volunteers is likely to be an issue for all conventions in 2021. The best advice I have for those fans and presenters attending a convention this year, allow extra time for unexpected hiccups due to staffing shortages.

Dragon Con 2021 September 9th - Chessex Booth.jpg

Chessex booth​

3… 2… 1…

While there were other challenges during the convention, they were less systematic and more individual. Despite these problems, Dragon Con went well. As the return of the big geek culture convention in North America, Dragon Con’s overall performance showed a lot of promise for the other upcoming conventions. Tens of thousands of fans attended, I heard reports of solid sales figures, plenty of celebrities came, and I’ve read hundreds of fan posts about how much they enjoyed themselves. We’re not past the pandemic as a society, but this con showed that there’s still a large community ready to return to their favorite conventions.

*For this article, I’m discussing Dragon Con and other conventions with a large tabletop presence. If my calendar is correct, the last major tabletop/tabletop adjacent conventions before the pandemic set in were Pax Unplugged 2019 (December 6th through the 8th) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and UK Games Expo (July 30th through August 1st) in Birmingham, United Kingdom, which had 10,671 unique attendees in 2021. Did I overlook any tabletop gaming heavy convention (with tens of thousands of attendees) that occurred in-person in North America between Pax Unplugged 2019 and Dragon Con 2021. (I’m not counting UK Games Expo here since it occurred on another continent.) If I missed a large in-person tabletop gaming convention (or one that has a notable gaming presence like DragonCon) that took place face-to-face between those two conventions, let me know in the comments.

Disclosure: While Egg Embry pays for his travel, hotel, and food, certain conventions discussed in this article provide complimentary entry to their cons because he registers as a member of the press/media. Egg Embry participates in the OneBookShelf Affiliate Program and is an Amazon Associate. These programs provide advertising fees by linking to DriveThruRPG and Amazon.

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Egg Embry

Egg Embry


Glad to see these starting back up. My local one is in February and was online last year. I suspect it will go this year, but have similar restrictions.


I hope it's fun! Do you mind if I ask what the local con for you is?
TotalConfussion in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Had been going for a number of years and just started taking my son a couple years ago and then Covid happened. It is a good Con and they have a good turnout, not compared to these nationals though. My only problem is that they do not have enough D&D events for the number of players. Part was to get you to try other games and some was lack of DMs in some slots.

TotalConfussion in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Had been going for a number of years and just started taking my son a couple years ago and then Covid happened. It is a good Con and they have a good turnout, not compared to these nationals though. My only problem is that they do not have enough D&D events for the number of players. Part was to get you to try other games and some was lack of DMs in some slots.
Not having enough of the games you're searching for is such a common challenge for conventions, it feels like. That said, I'm glad you have a local con and it's worth going to. :)

Yeah same, but I don't play anymore... I still purchase books though. I guess I love collecting them.
There was a period in my timeline where I stopped playing (Life with a capital "L", you know). But, I never lost my love of RPG (much like what you mention). Now I get to play regularly, but I get what you're saying. There's always room for you at the gaming table that is this hobby. :)


Does anyone have any official or semi-official stats on COVID transmission from Gencon 2021 that they've seen released? I went last month, didn't catch any con-crud of ANY type (phenomenal, based on my past experiences!) and from my personal observation mask use and precautions were pretty well observed by the attendees. (Despite the exhibit hall, for which social distancing was NOT possible, everywhere else people seemed to be very respectful of space.)

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