by Mike Shea on 13 August 2012
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 2012.
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, a way most people never understand. If you are a gamer and have never gone, you owe it to yourself to find a way to go.
But surviving and thriving at a gaming convention isn't easy. The following guide comes from experiences at multiple Gencon, PAX East, and D&D Experience conventions of the past six years. Let these tips help 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 it throughout the con. A big liter bottle will serve you well throughout the entire convention. For some better 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.
Good food at the right time is hard to come by. You and thirty thousand other people generally have the same tastes at the same times of day. Con food 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.
Instead of sitting down at a restaurant, order your food to go. At PAX we saved ourselves 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.
When it comes to gaming supplies, start with your DM walk-away kit and take only what you need to run a game. I never brought a single 4e rulebook to the last few cons I went to and didn't have any trouble running 4e games. Someone always has the rules handy.
If you're having trouble deciding what games to bring, go for the smaller and lighter ones. Bring Zombie Dice or a stripped-down version of Dominion. Bring the Dragon Age RPG instead of Wrath of Ashardalon. Running Gamma World? Stick to just the core book and half a deck of Alpha Mutations and Omega Tech.
Stick your gaming stuff in zip-loc bags instead of boxes. Tear off a small corner of the bag to let it deflate and lie flat.
I've written up some other tips for packing light at my personal blog. They work just as nicely for a gaming convention as they do anywhere else.
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. Avoid shaking hands with every person you meet. Give them a good salute, a fist bump, or the iron guard or something else. Bring fist-to-forehead and stick out your boot like Roland in the Gunslinger. Bring hand sanitizer but also wash your hands as often as you can.
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.
Now let's talk about how to have the most fun out of a con.
You might find the most fun you have at a gaming convention are at unscheduled events. Instead of filling up your entire schedule, set a few goals for what you most want to do. Whatever plans you think you have will either fall apart or you'll wish they had as you find yourself missing some of the better random events and encounters that just pop up during the event.
Game with friends you don't normally get to see should be high on the list. Waiting in line should be low. Skip out on the seminars you know will be well covered and recorded elsewhere. Instead, focus on the things you can't do anywhere else at any other time than at a gaming convention like this one.
As a service that exploded in popularity during South by South West 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. All of these conventions are a lot 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 john or save your place in line at the pizza joint. Obviously, your buddy should be someone with whom you get along.
More than two or three people in your band and you start running into logistical challenges. It's harder to find a place to eat. You get into decisions by committee instead of just two people 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, and grabbing onto the best moments when they arrive in front of you. Pack light, stay healthy, and set your goals to have the best time you can.
If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips and Running Epic Tier D&D Games. Need some battle maps? Pick up some Gamemastery Flip-Maps from Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.
Send feedback to email@example.com.