by Mike Shea on 27 July 2014
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 2015.
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 forty thousand of our geeky brothers and sisters. It's a wonderful feeling to swim in a sea of gaming with 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. Consider these tips as you prepare and navigate for your own trip to our true home — the gaming convention.
We start with the lowest of 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 at convenient water stations throughout the con. If you can't find a filtered water station, suck it up and fill it up at a drinking fountain. It's not poison. You'll be fine. A liter bottle will serve you well throughout the entire convention and, with the right backpack, it's very easy to keep with you all the time.
Getting decent food at a convention can be tough. You and forty 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 a bag of almonds can get you through those long gaming sessions.
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. You can also avoid the crowds by changing up your eating schedule. Eating meals early or late can cut out a lot of time waiting in line.
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. Use shoes you know are comfortable. Don't buy a new pair and expect them to work well at the convention. Thanks to Dr. Mary Crowell for reminding me about this tip.
Here's more on how to pack light for the obsessive compulsives out there. 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 cut a few pounds from your pack. If you're playing more popular RPGs like Pathfinder or D&D, you can leave your core books at home and borrow them from your neighbor at the game. If you're playing smaller independent RPGs, you might use PDFs of the games on your iPad or comparable tablet.
If you're running games, consider running games that don't require a lot of table materials. Slim games like Fate Accelerated 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.
The newly released D&D Starter Set is a great package for bringing a full copy of D&D with you without adding a lot of weight. Leave the box at home and stuff the booklets in an expanding plastic file folder.
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 touching.
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 or get a headache. 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 popularized around conferences, 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. Twitter shines at conventions like this—make use of it.
Twitter can generate its own problems, though. Many of these conventions are huge. Gencon in 2014, for example, had over 50,000 people. There are always things going on and its easy to feel like you're missing out on things even when you're in a game. When you ARE in a game, however, really BE there. Put the phone away. Enjoy the game you're playing. Enjoy meeting the people around the table and listening to them about their own game experiences. It's very easy to feel like you're missing out. Take that energy and put it into the game you're playing at the moment instead of the game going on somewhere else without you.
Run with a partner at your gaming convention. Conventions are more fun when you have someone to sit, eat, play Magic, or just chat with. 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 you like.
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.