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Checking Out the Scene: Gaming Conventions

Updated on February 19, 2015

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Just the other week, I attended a Michigan-based gaming convention. This wasn’t my first (nor hopefully my last) outing at the convention. However, this did get me to thinking about how the convention-going experience may seem to others; others specifically being non-gamers and people new to gaming conventions in general. The experience can and will seem jarring and intimidating to newcomers; other folk unfamiliar with the conventions-going scene will probably feel alienated or otherwise completely lost at the aspects of gaming conventions. So I figured, let’s clear up a thing or two and talk about gaming conventions!

The Basics

Whether it is a low-key local get-together or a large gathering sponsored by the big manufacturers, all gaming conventions (or cons) share a number of features. The smaller cons will not have everything that the bigger conventions will have (as makes sense), but all cons are going to provide:

Open Play for All

At gaming conventions, one can and should expect gaming to occur. The convention-organizers will typically provide space for attendees (and occasionally the general public, but not guaranteed) to set up and play games. This gives an opportunity for attendees to relax with friends new and old and play games they brought with them, or may have just picked up at the con! Depending on the convention, the open gaming space may be sectioned off from other events at the con. If the con is particularly large, gaming space may be further sectioned off by format (i.e. board games, miniature gaming, RPGs, etc.). Some sponsors (typically game publishers and manufacturers) may even have their own designated open gaming space just for their products; again, depending upon the lay-out and particulars of the con.

Registered Gaming Events

If the open gaming isn’t really your thing, then you can always sign up for an event. Events are games run by a specific game master (here a generic term applicable to all games, and not just to role-playing games) volunteering their time at the convention. Each convention will have its own policies and procedures for coordinating and scheduling GMs, but that is more of a behind-the-scenes aspect. The concept with events if for attendees to participate in game play with the option for reserving a spot and time; this is primary difference between open-gaming and events, as open gaming is a much more spontaneous affair in the grand picture. Another important facet to events is that they are structured. Because the games are fit into a schedule for attendees to plan around/with, the games need to be designed so that they have a distinct end so that events do not run over their allotted time. While this does limit GMs, it also challenges them to hone their skills at running their games smoothly enough to fit within the time constraints. When signing up for events, be sure to find out whether you as a player are responsible for knowing the game or if the rules will be taught; some conventions will make sure to have that information available ahead of time, but not always.

The Vendors

The other major component that every convention has is vendors. Every purveyor of goods from books to games to accessories to jewelry has a place at a con; or rather a booth, from which they can sell their wares. The convention scene is where you can find the best deals as well. Some vendors will have obscure or out-of-print items for reasonable prices; or at least have rare items immediately available for purchase at equitable market value. All of this of course hinges on the venue (the convention). The bigger the convention scene, the more vendors there will be, with a tendency towards more quality products, but often enough you won’t see as many smaller booths with more low-key and/or more arcane items. At larger conventions, vendor space is pricier than at smaller venues and so more local businesses may not have as much access to sell at the con. The opposite can certainly be the case with smaller venues: smaller vendors with more interesting products but not necessarily as many or at mint-condition values. Really, the vendors are some of the most interesting and fun aspects (in my opinion, at least) to a convention and are ALWAYS worth checking out; and hanging out. Seriously, many vendors love chatting with their customers and other convention attendees if nothing else because cons are a great place to socialize.

Bit of advice when it comes to vendors: most vendors either have to rent trucks or pay other moving expenses to handle their products coming and going to conventions. And this is important because they can save money by selling more products; which means that if they want to sell more and save more on transport expenses, they will do what they can to make the best deals on the last day of the convention. This isn’t to say that at a weekend convention, you should wait till Sunday to do all of your shopping; no, space that out over the whole convention. But if you want to find the best deals with some vendors, then you can find such deals on the last day.

The Seminars

Up to this point, pretty much every con is going to have space for vendors and space for gaming, either in the form of open gaming or as part of registered events. However, at larger conventions you will have the chance to register to attend seminars of all forms. These seminars may be classes related to gaming (how to GM, world building, character design, game design, etc.), arts and crafts sessions (how to make your own chainmail dice bag, making coasters, etc.) or other sundry events to partake (participating in a haunted tour, for example). Just like with vendors, participating in seminars is a great opportunity to meet and greet with any number of interesting and fun people. This can be a chance to establish short-term friends with a shared experience, or even lay the foundations for deeper bonds of camaraderie not so easily disrupted by distance.

I know of at least one convention-goer who met up with a group that regularly ran a chainmail class at the same convention, year after year. And year after year, they would meet up again like long-departed friends, hang out at class for much of the con, and generally pick up as if time stood still.

And Introducing: Special Guests

And speaking of interesting folk, another possibility for you at conventions (particularly the larger ones) is to meet or hear from various special guest attendees. Most of the time, these will be prominent figures of the gaming scene: writers, game developers, and other important personalities behind-the-scenes of the biggest games and game franchises. Other guests may be pop-culture icons in their own rights (read: movie and television stars). This will be an opportunity to interact with these famous people, nab an autograph, and maybe even gab for a moment with your favorite actor/actress; even ask them some of those burning questions. Other commonly seen guests at cons are artists. The gaming industry recruits armies of talented artists to populate their games, books, and other products for their customers.

Personally, my only advice whenever meeting someone of such caliber is to treat them respect and not gush over them. They are normal people who happen to be much more widely known. If you engage with them as you would anyone else you just met, then you probably get along just fine; or at least not bug them or take up too much of their limited time.

Who have I met? I have had the chance to meet: Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day-Off), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Ray Park (Darth Maul), Ron Glass (Shepherd Book from Firefly and Serenity), and the talented artist Susan Van Camp.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Alan RuckRay ParkRon Glass
Alan Ruck
Alan Ruck
Ray Park
Ray Park
Ron Glass
Ron Glass

Which Conventions?

Now that we had a chance to talk about some of the general features of conventions, let’s wrap things up with a quick jaunt into just a few different conventions out there.

Lock & Load

Set-up by Washington-based publisher, Privateer Press, Lock & Load showcases some of the latest models for Privateer’s WARMACHINE and HORDES line. They also hold seminars for painting techniques, in-depth analysis and exploration of their role-playing (and miniature) setting, as well as hold tournaments and other contests for attendees. The convention is situated in Seattle and is typically held in June.

Marmalade Dog

Celebrating twenty years, Marmalade Dog (or Marmie Dog) is held at Western Michigan University (in Kalamazoo, MI) by the student organization: the West Michigan Gamer’s Guild. It is a smaller events, but boasts many vendors as well as host for the immersive and entertaining Mech-pods for last several years.


Originally held in Lake Geneva, WI, GenCon is considered the largest table-top gaming convention in North America. Typically held in the late summer/early fall, GenCon plays host for many (if not most) of the biggest publishers of games in the world. Numerous artists, guests, and vendors populate the halls of the convention center in downtown Indianapolis, the current venue for the con.


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