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Why Gaming Conventions Rock

Greg Tito | 29 Jun 2010 17:00
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For the last two years, I've had the pleasure of attending Gen Con in Indianapolis. It is quite possibly the largest concentration of role-playing nerds in one space for one hot weekend in August. In making preparations for this year's venture to the Midwest, I stopped to reflect on just what makes gaming conventions so special. Having had the experience of more videogame-centric events like PAX, GDC and E3 under my belt, I'm excited to go back to my roots, as it were, and roll some dice at America's true gaming convention.

Legend has it that Gary Gygax started Gen Con in his basement in 1967. Gygax was an insurance actuary (that explains the tables) living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and the first gathering was an informal congregation of about 20 wargaming grognards. Because of the location and its focus on wargames, this meeting was called the Geneva Convention. The next year, Gygax rented the Horticultural Hall in town for $50 and Gen Con was held there every year until 1976. After gradually moving to bigger and better facilities, spawning many imitators, and changing many hands, Gen Con has been held in Indianapolis since 2003 and run by the founder of Wizards of the Coast, Peter Adkison.

The first Gen Con that I attended was also the first without Gary Gygax. Gygax's passing into the Happy Hunting Grounds was a pall that hung over the event, but it was fascinating to see a community of dorks and nerds pay homage to the man who made their lifestyles possible. These huddled masses, these LeeLoo and Star Wars cosplayers, these thick-breasted, bodiced women and long-bearded men, all paid their respects with a moment of silence at the start of festivities on Thursday morning. But the silence was unnecessary, for their mere existence was all in honor of Gygax.

I went to Gen Con in 2008 to promote a book called Forgotten Heroes: Fang, Fist and Song for Goodman Games. It was the first third party supplement for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition and it featured rules for the Bard, Barbarian, Monk and Druid, classes which were notably absent from Wizard's first Player's Handbook for the edition. In order to show off the classes, the writing team thought it might be a good idea to run an adventure all weekend that let Gen Con attendees try out our powers and feats with custom-made characters. We set a rigorous schedule of 2 hour sessions, essentially from 9am Thursday morning to Sunday afternoon. The responsibility for GMing these gaming sessions were supposed to be split evenly amongst the 4 writers, but one couldn't run any due to other activities and the other needed to babysit Ed Greenwood. So essentially, my friend and colleague, Tavis Allison, and I traded running games 14 hours a day for four days straight.

Successfully running a good convention game is different from any kind of ongoing gaming session or group, even if your group plays only one shots. At a convention, especially one of the size and popularity as Gen Con, you are likely to never meet someone who plays in your game ever again. There is no continuity from one session to the next; everything that you imagine around the table in that wonky hotel ballroom only exists in the minds of you and your fellow players. The adventure needs to be easy to digest, but also memorable enough for players to walk away feeling like they had participated in something special.

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