Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Role Game Cons Play

I’m no pollster, nor am I a statistician; but I’d love to run a survey across the spectrum of the adventure gaming hobby to see how often gamers attend conventions of any size. What percentage never attend a convention each year? What percentage gets to a premiere event like GenCon? How important are conventions to the average gamer? My own involvement with gaming conventions (or media conventions with gaming tracks) has varied as I’ve grown and changed as a gamer. They offer opportunities to game with others, hang out with members of the gaming community, discover new games, and shop with vendors; but how important is the convention experience to the average gamer?

Running Valley of the Ape
at Barrage.
Many hobbies sponsor conventions to promote their pursuits, showcase vendors, and provide a forum for participants to share their enthusiasm. Given adventure gaming’s social nature it makes sense that conventions have played a key role in both promoting the hobby but helping it evolve. Reading Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World one sees how early conventions like the GenCon shows in Lake Geneva (established in 1968) and the Origins Game Fair (started in 1975) brought together enthusiast-designers such as Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, Rob Kuntz, and Jeff Perrin (to name a scant few) to share ideas and forge partnerships in developing new games...not to mention gamers eager for play experiences and new product. Reading the game magazines of the time (primarily Dragon Magazine) one sees a host of ads for game conventions and reports of activities there, giving average gamers the impression attending such cons was a much a part of the hobby as creating characters, devising scenarios, and running adventures. The magazine and other publications also ran listings for smaller, regional conventions that might prove more accessible to enthusiasts.

Conventions come in all different shapes and sizes, each one offering a different experience. The massive crowds at GenCon might seem daunting, but the event brings together gamers from across the nation, showcases vendors and publishers in the dealers hall, and provides a vast array of games, panels, and other activities where gamers can network and indulge in their geeky interests. Smaller, regional cons offer a similar experience on a more manageable scale closer to home. Although not normally considered “conventions,” local game days sponsored by clubs, libraries, and friendly local game stores (FLGS) can offer similar experiences gaming and meeting others. Many conventions focus exclusively on gaming; yet many media conventions – those emphasizing author and artist guests, with panels about various media properties and the obligatory costume contest – offer gaming tracks that vary in their importance with fan-attendees. I used to attend several in the mid-Atlantic region; these days I don’t in part because the prominence of gaming has dwindled in its competition with other fan-oriented activities over the years to an almost token presence. Granted, this is only my personal observation and opinion, and I’m sure other media conventions across the country vary in this depending on attendance numbers and the involvement of volunteers or even publishers who help organize gaming tracks.

Running a Star Wars Roleplaying
Game session (with Mos Eisley diorama)
at SciCon.
As a youthful, casual gamer I rarely attended gaming conventions. During my high school and college years I read about them in the pages of Dragon Magazine – print media being one of the few ways of getting news from the industry and the gaming community – but the only one I managed to attend was PointCon at nearby West Point (a subject I’ve discussed before). After college, when living at home and working as a reporter for my weekly hometown newspaper, I ran games at an annual gaming convention nearby...one I’d read about in the con listings in Dragon. All those years I’d read about GenCon as the Mecca for “true” roleplaying gamers, but the prospect of traveling from New England to Milwaukee, WI, seemed far too daunting for a young adult in terms of travel, time, and cost to attend. My convention attendance skyrocketed when I started working as an on-staff editor for West End Games (and the company picked up much of the bill). The trek to GenCon became an annual tradition. With the contacts I made I had a regular schedule of smaller, regional gaming conventions I attended each year, officially or unofficially, where I ran games and promoted the company’s product. Even after West End went into bankruptcy I still attended conventions. But soon marriage and family life intervened and convention attendance succumbed to financial and scheduling concerns...and the logistics of traveling with a small child (or leaving him home alone with mom for an extended weekend). I’ve since veered away from roleplaying game and media conventions with gaming tracks to focus more on cons featuring board games and miniature wargames. This reflects not only my current focus as a player but our family’s interests in gaming; the seven year-old Little Guy has more easily grasped board and miniature wargames and is only now slowly showing interest in kid-friendly roleplaying games. For us conventions serve as family or father-son activities, though I sometimes get a chance to promote my own games. I expect we’ll find some new cons offering opportunities to further explore roleplaying games together.

So how essential is the convention experience to the average gamer? Everyone’s mileage will vary, depending on one’s degree of involvement in the hobby, proximity to convention opportunities, and scheduling and financial concerns. For many I’d guess it’s in the category of “nice if you can get it, but not entirely necessary.” Most adventure gaming activities still occur at the smallest level, among groups of players meeting in homes and, perhaps, at a FLGS with ample open play space and a hospitable management. A good FLGS can provide many elements one can find at a good friendly local game store: an opportunity to try new games, make new friends, and buy new gaming resources. Local club and library events can also satisfy some of these requirements (albeit not always the “shopping” aspect). Although they’re not full-on conventions, they play a role in expanding gamers’ experiences and, perhaps more importantly, exposing newcomers to the hobby. While conventions undoubtedly remain part of the adventure gaming hobby – past, present, and future – their importance to individual gamers continues to vary based on their individual circumstances: access, scheduling, financing, and, ultimately enjoyment.

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