Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Capacity for Conventions

Running the Star Wars RPG with
convention guest Timothy Zahn, 1993.
I was cleaning out a filing cabinet a few weeks ago and came upon some old signs for convention games I ran in the distant past. I allowed myself to slip into nostalgia for the days when my calendar held annual sojourns to various game conventions within driving distance, where I’d go and run a full slate of roleplaying games and, in later times, miniature wargames (usually designed for kids and hobby newcomers). Most provided inspiration for numerous stories I’m wont to share when the mood strikes, I’m emboldened by some liquid refreshment, and I have a willing (or at least politely tolerant) audience. They’re great memories. But life marches on, obligations to home and family take precedence, and I’m certainly not as young and energetic. I’m not sure I have much capacity for running convention games any more, though goodness knows in my blind and foolish optimism I occasionally muster the energy and give it yet one more try.

When I first immersed myself in the adventure gaming hobby I always aspired to attend game conventions but had limited means. Certainly the pages of Dragon Magazine enticed readers to make the pilgrimage to GenCon each year, and I hoped to but never realized it until much later. Before joining West End Games to work on the Star Wars Roleplaying Game I’d attended two conventions. In high school I learned about Pointcon at West Point Military Academy (a 90-minute drive from my home in Connecticut); I went my last two years in high school and enjoyed trying new games (possibly The Sword and the Flame, I’m not sure), listening to lectures, and shopping the dealers. After college, when working in my hometown and immersing myself in games again, I ran Star Wars Roleplaying Game adventures at ConnCon in Danbury, CT, a bit closer to home and hence easier to run a weekend of seven scenarios over three days.

Running Star Wars RPG adventures
on the Mos Eisley starport diorama.
Of course joining the staff of a game company in the mid 1990s required one to attend numerous conventions, both officially for the company and in a personal capacity. GenCon was, of course, the biggest, and I attended every year I was at West End (and two afterward while begging for freelance work in my “Desperate Freelance Years” after the company’s bankruptcy). I recall heading to DragonCon twice. Sometimes we heard of some interesting convention and convinced management to send us, though this was rare. I accompanied our sales managers on a few jaunts to GAMA trade shows to provide some creative staff perspective to distributors and game store representatives. Somehow I never managed to make it to Origins. Occasionally staffers received invitations to conventions as paid guests; sometimes we attended these conventions and others on our own, though representing West End in unofficial capacities. Later, as a freelancer and independent game designer, I maintained an annual schedule of conventions to visit at my own expense, running D6 Adventure games to promote my Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga supplements under development and after publication...with obligatory Star Wars games for fans.

Getting older and starting a family has curtailed my involvement in conventions compared to my younger days. I rarely venture afar to even those conventions I used to habitually attend. I’ve done more wargaming conventions as my interests have shifted and I’ve been able to engage my son in such games more easily and consistently than roleplaying games (though goodness knows I’ve tried). I’ve often found more satisfaction simply going as a gamer rather than running games. And the covid pandemic certainly shut down convention participation for a while; it also caused me to re-examine my convention priorities and exercise a bit more discretion in my participation going forward.

Attending any convention – when not sponsored by some corporate game publisher – takes a lot of effort and expense. If we were lucky a convention might pay for our travel and hotel, but those days are long gone except for major guests of honor. (Though I really appreciate NukeCon generously hosting me twice and taking great care of me as guest of honor.) For much of my time I’ve been lucky to get a complimentary admission or two and sometimes a dealers table (though the latter often proved more of a burden and hardly profitable enough to offset expenses). These days I’ve resigned myself to going to conventions for my enjoyment, usually (but not always) running games I want to promote or find fulfilling, and accepting the expense as the price of my hobby. That said, expense remains a major factor when I consider attending any convention. One of my fondest memories is attending a wargaming convention with my son in Williamsburg, VA, just before the pandemic broke in early 2020; we bookended the convention with visits to the Mariners’ Museum and Historic Jamestowne, turning a long weekend into a small father-son vacation.

Proposing game events to run at a convention is much like a chef crafting a menu item. It goes on the menu and it appeals to some folks’ taste or it doesn’t. Regardless, and with no idea how many people will be interested in it, we prepare all the ingredients so it’s ready to go when someone orders it. This mindset still doesn’t diminish my disappointment in spending time and effort preparing a convention game session nobody plays. Over the years I’ve tempered myself not to worry too much who shows up or feel bad if one, or all, events fail to attract any players. I offer a menu item ready-to-go, making it seem as attractive as possible, so I can’t help if nobody’s interested. I’ve learned to make sure I can run any game I propose with a single player if that’s the only level of interest it garners. These days I have a repertoire of games – both roleplaying and miniature wargaming – I can easily pull together and run with a minimum of preparation; many also reflect my current interests in the adventure gaming hobby, giving me some level of enjoyment as I prepare. As insurance against disappointing games that fail to run, I make a point of seeking other aspects of a convention where I might find fulfillment: catching up with old friends, making new ones, trying new games or old favorites, and shopping dealers and flea markets.

I only have a limited capacity to do these events, much of which I’ve exhausted in my younger years. It took me a while to realize, as an introvert, public events drain a lot of energy and patience, resources I need to replenish in peace and quiet away from the convention crowd. A lot of time, effort, and money goes into planning for and attending a convention: not simply the effort running games, but traveling to and from the con location, dealing with hotels and restaurants, and the sometimes Kafka-esque convention organizer bureaucracy. Nothing I do can make up for the cost, but I work very hard to make sure everyone who joins one of my games has a great time...and that I myself find fulfillment in attending a convention.

Schweig’s Convention Game Menu

All that said, I figured I should list what games I currently have developed and ready to go should all the factors/stars align for me to attend a convention or some other public gaming event:

Roleplaying Games: I still maintain a few folders of ready-to-run roleplaying game scenarios, all with pre-generated characters (which helps things move along at the table and makes sure I’m familiar with character abilities).

Star Wars D6: I’m always good for a Star Wars session. I have a solid repertoire of scenarios I can run for Star Wars. Some appeared in West End product of yore (Instant Adventures is a good bet), while others come from my personal stash of adventures, including a few specifically designed for conventions.

Pulp Games: Using D6 Adventure I can chose from a host of Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga adventures (all with pre-generated characters). I have a few favorites from those appearing in the sourcebooks or released as freebies separately that prove particularly good with newcomers to the game system or pulp genre.

Wargames: Most of my miniature wargames are geared toward kids or newcomers, either by my own design (like Panzer Kids) or by stripping down rules (like Wings of Glory). Although many don’t last more than two hours, they’re easy to re-set and can often accept players mid-game without too much fuss.

Valley of the Ape: My first game designed specifically for kids uses 54mm unpainted Armies in Plastic figures so kids don’t have to worry about bending my toys. Very simple exploration and fighting game, where players whose forces succumb to battle “respawn” them at the board’s edge.

Panzer Kids: I have several scenarios set in North Africa to run with Panzer Kids. Having designed the game myself I’m familiar with explaining the rules and judging when participants are experienced enough to keep track of the optional rules that add more depth to the game.

Wings of Glory: I’ve run my “Game which Will Live in Infamy” at conventions before. It’s a good introduction to Wings of Glory (I vastly simplify the rules) and World War II aviation gaming. I have planes for a number of scenarios, including the Battle of Britain, Defend the B-17, Midway, and Raid on the Forth.

Gridded Naval Wargames: A personal favorite designed by Bob Cordery, I’ve used these rules for American Civil War ironclad clashes, dreadnought action in the Russo-Japanese war, and even World War II action (PT boats and even the Battle of the River Plate). They’re easy to learn, especially when using the dry-erase ship cards I devised to keep track of game stats and damage.

One-Hour Wargames: These fairly easy wargame rules from Neil Thomas cover numerous historical periods and offer a host of scenarios that play out within an hour. They offer a basic game system for playing out battles with my various miniatures collections (metal, plastic, and paper).

Orcs in Rohan: Years ago I got a fantastic trade/deal on some 54mm painted plastic Lord of the Rings toys, a ton of orcs, including warg riders, and a troop of Rohirrim. Naturally I wanted to ge them to the table, so with some crafted terrain and Daniel Mersey’s Dragon Rampant rules (from Osprey Publishing), I’ve run several scenarios involving Rohirrim confronting orcs on their way to besiege the Hornburg. I always need to re-read the rules as a refresher, but with stat cards for each unit the game plays well with beginners.

The Game that Will
Live in Infamy.
I have learned through experience conventions are not the place to try running new games I’m interested in without having a solid fluency in the system. This is more relevant to roleplaying games (which have widely varying rules and complexities) than miniature wargames (many of which are based on the same core structures). Nothing annoys me more than having to pick up a rulebook mid-game and check details; so I try to make sure I refresh my knowledge of the rules, keep my in-game references to a minimum, and provide players summary sheets for the more involved games.


  1. *sigh*
    I did love playing Valley of the Ape with my son. Might have to break that one out again.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, JB; I'm always heartened to hear folks enjoyed my games. I had fun designing Valley of the Ape and it always garnered a good crowd of kids (and some curious adults) when I ran it at conventions.

  3. Personally I haven’t run an rpg game in many years, but this winter will be my renaissance. I recently picked up Pulp Egypt, and Rura Tonga which have inspired me to dig into the 1930s pulp era, and take up the mantle again, both at home and at the flgs for one shots. The most familiar system to me is from many years as a D6 Star Wars GM. Sending a thank you is the least I can do, Peter, for the inspiration now and back in my teenage years. In my lap right now is a newly acquired copy of the WEG raiders of the lost ark sourcebook, and once again I find myself inspired in flights of imagination by your work. I hope you find the ability to attend more cons, and convince your son of the glories of RPGs. Mostly though, thank you for your work.

  4. Thanks for the kind words Nigel. I'm encouraged to hear how my work all those years ago (and a few bits more recently) inspire people. Good luck with your pulp gaming!


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