by Mike Shea on 5 August 2013
Note: This article has been updated from its original 28 March 2011 edition just in time for us to use it to prepare for Gencon 2013.
Gaming conventions are our pilgrimages to nerd mecca. They let us forget the mundane nature of the real world and swim in a sea of fantasy and science fiction with thirty thousand of our geeky brothers and sisters. It's a wonderful feeling to see so many who love the same things you do. If you are a gamer and have never gone, you owe it to yourself to find a way to go.
Surviving and thriving at a gaming convention isn't easy, though. The following guide comes from experiences at multiple Gencon, PAX East, and D&D Experience conventions of the past seven years. Consider these tips as you prepare and navigate for your own trip to our true home — the gaming convention.
We start with Maslow's heircharchy of needs by seeking out the core substance of life: water. Buy a big bottle of water the minute you arrive and fill up the bottle throughout the con. A liter bottle will serve you well throughout the entire convention. You can find water refill stations all throughout the convention hall.
If you need a little flavor, buy a bunch of single-serving zero-calorie flavor packs. If you're a caffeine hound, pick up the energy versions of the same packets but remember that caffeine is no substitute for true rest. These flavor packs pack easily and help you avoid spending up to $100 just in drinks at the con. Whether you re-use a purchased bottle of water or go with something fancier like a Camelbak, always ensure you have a good bottle of water with you. Fill it and drink it often.
Getting decent food at a convention can be hard. You and thirty thousand other people generally have the same tastes at the same times of day. Food at the convention hall itself almost always sucks and costs a fortune. The masses of gamers pack local restaurants at all the typical times you'd expect. Unlike a good water bottle, you can't simply bring your food from home. You can bring some, however. A stash of Kind bars, dried fruit, trail mix, or jerky can get you through those long gaming sessions. Don't worry about going low-calorie. You actually want a good amount of calories per ounce, just remember to track what you're eating or you'll gain ten pounds on fruit bars.
Try to frequent restaurant off of the beaten path. At Gencon in Indy, we found a Panera that's great for breakfasts and a Subway perfect for lunches. Pick up some sandwiches in the morning to eat for lunch later in the day so you don't have to run off during lunch with everyone else.
Over the past couple of years, Gencon has had a bunch of food trucks parked right outside. These trucks help cut down on the crowds and give you some food fast.
Here's another trick. Instead of sitting down at a restaurant, order your food to go. You can save yourself an hour by ordering burgers at the local hotel restaurant to-go and eating at a table right outside. At places like Noodles and Co. you can phone in your order and go pick it right up instead of waiting in line. Thanks to the Chatty DM for that tip!
Backpacks make perfect bags for cons. They're easy to carry, lightweight, and leave your hands free. Try packing for your trip like a backpacker. Think about the weight of the stuff you're going to bring. There are two philosophies that can help you here:
Bring what you NEED, not what you think you MIGHT need.
Buy it there. Set yourself an allowance to buy stuff you might otherwise pack but aren't likely to use. Don't bring an umbrella, just buy one if you end up needing it. Forget your toothbrush? Ask the hotel staff for one. They usually keep a small stash of supplies for guests.
Bring comfortable shoes. You'll do a ton of walking at Gencon and your feet will thank you for using your most comfortable footwear. Don't fall for the newbie mistake of buying shoes right before a trip. That's almost always a bad idea. I'm a big fan of Jungle Mocs. Thanks to Dr. Mary Crowell for reminding me about this tip.
If you want to know more, here's quite a bit more on how to pack light. If you happen to be driving instead of flying, packing light is not nearly as much of a concern. Go ahead and load up the U-haul full of your finest Dwarven Forge products.
The perfect gaming kit can also cut quite a few pounds from your pack. If you're playing the bigger RPGs like Pathfinder or D&D, you can leave your core books at home and just borrow them from your neighbor. If you're playing smaller independent RPGs, you might load up your iPad or another tablet with the PDF rulebooks instead of the paper ones. If you're running games, consider running games that don't require a lot of table materials. Super-slim games like Fate Accelerated Edition are perfect for convention gaming. Games that focus on the imagination instead of complicated tabletop setups also work really well at conventions. Dungeon World and 13th Age are a couple of examples.
When it comes to gaming supplies, start with your DM walk-away kit and take only what you need to run a game. You can often skip bringing the rulebooks to bigger games like Pathfinder or D&D. Someone else will always have the book handy.
Use ziploc bags instead of boxes to organize your materials to further cut down on size and weight.
We've all heard about Con Crud. We all remember the story of the swine flu at PAX in 2009. Wash your hands all the time. Bring a small bottle of hand sanitizer. Avoid shaking hands. Give them a good two-finger salute, a fist bump, the iron guard or some other friendly gesture that doesn't involve your hands, lips, or tongue. Bring your fist to your forehead and stick out your boot as you kneel like Roland in the Gunslinger. Wash your hands all the time.
Pack Pepto tablets in case the con food starts hitting you hard. Bring some Advil or Tylenol in case you start coming down with something. If you start feeling really bad, do everyone a favor and go rest in your room instead of spreading the plague.
It's hard to find the perfect balance of planned events and unscheduled time for pick-up games and random encounters. Some use the con as a way to play all the games they can't normally play at home. Some focus exclusively on seminars and opportunities to hobknob with RPG celebrities. Some spend the entire time in the dealers room loading up on dice and trying out every demo of every game known to man.
Avoid over-scheduling yourself. If you've not been to a con before, you'll want ample free time just to walk around. If you schedule too light, however, you might find yourself wandering around aimlessly instead of rolling dice.
Set some goals for yourself before you go and keep these goals doable. This might include trying a particular game system, meeting some friends you might only know online, picking up old D&D adventures in the dealer's room, or listening to one of your favorite designers talk about their new RPG. Start with your goals and build your schedule around that.
As a service that exploded in popularity during SXSW in 2007, Twitter is a fantastic platform for keeping an eye on the random events taking place throughout our conventions. Follow the hash-tags (#gencon for Gencon and #pax or #paxeast for their respective cons) to see what the general populous is up to. Follow or build lists of attendees you want to meet or hang out with and keep an eye on their goings ons. Good use of Twitter shines at conventions like this, make use of it.
Run with a partner at your gaming convention. Conventions are more fun when you have someone with whom you can sit, eat, play Magic, or just chat. Having a buddy means someone can watch your bag when you need to go to the can or save your place in line at the pizza joint. Obviously, your buddy should be someone with whom you get along.
More than three or four people in your adventuring party and you start running into logistical challenges. It's harder to find a place to eat and decisions start happening by committee instead of two people just picking a place. Traveling as a big group instead of just two or three people can end up as a disadvantage instead of an advantage.
Enjoying a gaming convention comes first and foremost from being prepared, staying flexible, relaxing, and having a great time. Pack light, stay healthy, and set your goals to have the best time you can.