[This article originally appeared on my website, but I’m going to be slowly transitioning my website content to here on WordPress, mainly because it’s 10x easier to edit and update here than on my old manually-coded website.]
I’ve been going to Gen Con off and on since 1995 (my first year working at TSR). Some of these are things I’ve learned, some of these are my perspective of some suggestions by other people. As of August 2019 I’ve updated and reformatted this info a bit, and some of these topics repeat a little bit with more information in different sections.
1. Have Fun. If you’re not having a good time, go do something else.
2. Be clean. A lot of gamers have hygiene problems. Yes, that might mean you. 50,000+ people who don’t bathe often in a hot summer city makes a stinky Gen Con. Here’s how you can help:
- Shower every day of the show (whether you think you need it or not).
- Brush your teeth every day (whether you think you need it or not).
- Wear clean clothes and deodorant every day.
- Wash your freakin’ hands after you use the restroom, and avoid touching people (including shaking hands). There are so many people who don’t wash their hands after using the restroom, which means that there are urine, feces, and genitalia cooties on their hands. Oh, and here is SomethingPositive.com’s Guide To Con Hygiene (a GIF file), quite funny … and instructive. And it wouldn’t hurt to carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer (not the antibacterial kind, that just adds to the problem, just use the alcohol+glycerin type, like Purell).
3. Limit talking about your character to 30 seconds. Game industry people are constantly hit with people that insist on talking about their 17th level half-orc paladin for who knows how long. It’s rude (after all, everybody thinks their own character is cool, but most couldn’t care less about other peoples’ characters). Avoid talking about your characters to someone if at all possible. If you have to talk about a character, limit it to 30 seconds. If you do this, the person you’re talking to is much less likely to run away. (Honestly, this hasn’t been a problem for the past several years, which is nice.)
4. Sleep at least 5 hours a day. Personally, I need eight, but I’m an insomniac and rarely get it. Prepare for jet lag if you’re not in the same time zone as the convention (Indianapolis is on Eastern Time, UTC –4:00, and most of the state [including Indianapolis] uses Daylight Savings Time). Not getting enough sleep makes you cranky and less able to have fun (see rule #1). Also, if you short yourself on sleep and have to rush to an event, you’re likely to skip your morning shower (see rule #2) and get sick from being exposed to so many new germs (also rule #2). Frequent convention attendees try to follow The One/Three/Five Rule: each day, make sure you get one shower, three good meals, and five hours of sleep.
5. Be backpack courteous. Those big giant backpacks take up a lot of space. The kind with wheels are even worse–don’t bring them, or at least don’t roll it (save that for the airport). If you’re wearing a backpack, be aware of where it is–it’s far too easy to swing around and whack someone next to you. That’s not nice.
6. Be walkway courteous. Especially when you’re in the exhibitor’s hall, there’s the temptation to stop in the middle of the aisle when you see something interesting or when you need to dig something out of your backpack. That jams up everyone behind you. Instead, move to the side of the aisle before you stop. That keeps the aisles clear for traffic–a lot of people need to be somewhere in the exhibitor’s hall at a certain time, and traffic gluts are a real pain.
7. Drink a lot of water. It’s really easy to get dehydrated in a hot place. Plus, you’ll be mixing with a lot of people from all over the country, and you’ll need water to make sure your immune system can handle the haze of cross-country germs. Double plus, water’s good for you. Drink at least a glass of real water (not soda, juice, etc.) at every game slot. Sure, you’ll have to pee a lot, but that beats getting sick as soon as you get home.
Things to Bring
Snacks. Granola bars, dried fruit, fresh fruit, nuts, (and/or beef jerky, if you’re not a vegetarian). Stuff that’s good for you and gives you real energy. Fruit and grains for carbs and long-term energy, nuts for protein and to keep you feeling full. This will help keep you from spending tons of money on expensive con junk food.
Camera. If your mobile phone doesn’t have a camera, get a disposable camera so you can take pictures of cool stuff, like neat booths, games you want to look up later, celebrities doing autographs, and so on. If it’s digital, even cooler (easier to post stuff on a web site afterwards!), just don’t leave it lying around where it’ll get lost or stolen. Don’t forget to pack the camera charger, if it has one. If you’re taking a picture of a person in a costume, get their permission first—otherwise you’re just being creepy (and in most cases, they’re happy to have their picture taken, but it’s courteous to ask, especially as it lets them strike a cool pose).
Batteries. This assumes you have something that uses batteries, like a digital camera. Yes, you can buy some from the hotel’s store or a nearby convenience store, but they can sell out fast, so it’s best to bring your own.
Business cards. It sounds like a weird thing to bring to a convention if you want to play games, but you often meet cool people at the show, and business cards are an easy way to pass someone your info if you want to talk to them later. Also, if you’re interested in getting started in the gaming industry (as a freelance designer, artist, whatever), having a business card handy (even for your regular job) makes it easy for a potential employer to contact you later. In fact, write on the back of the card a quick description of yourself and what you’d like to do. For example, if it were me, I’d write on the back of the card, “Tall bald guy, wants to design rules for you, send him an email to get a sample of his work.” Makes it easier for your potential employer to remember you after the show!
Mobile Phone. … Or you can just put a new contact’s number into your mobile phone, or follow them on social media. A phone also makes it easier to meet up with wandering friends. If you don’t already have a mobile phone, it’s probably worth it to get one of those prepaid phones just for the show. But please have good phone etiquette. And bring your phone charger. :)
Make a meetup schedule. Thousands of people will be mobile phones, tablets, and other internet devices during the show. Expect weak connections, dropped calls, and delayed texts. It’s better to agree in person on a specific schedule (like “meet me at the front of the art show at 2pm on Thursday”) than try to find out if a friend might be available to meet you in the next hour. (People recommend this sort of thing for amusement parks like Disneyland, and it’s really smart.)
Traveler’s checks or a credit/debit cards. Most dealers at the show take them. And if stolen, they can be replaced (unlike cash).
Medicine.: Aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, whatever floats your boat. Your feet might hurt, your back might hurt, whatever, and it would be good to have that sort of thing on hand instead of having to buy a whole bottle at the hotel shop for $10. Youch! I also like to bring some vitamins, just to make sure my body gets the basic stuff it needs while stressed with travel, jet lag, and 50,000 strangers’ germs.
Heating Pads.: I’m talking the little one-use stick-on things you can get at Target, a drug store, or just about any store that has a good-sized “health” aisle (where you’d find rubbing alcohol, bandages, etc.). When working a show, I’m on my feet for eight hours a day, and a little localized heat goes a long way to prevent back pain. The menthol-based cooling ones are nice, too.
Gaming stuff: Small pad of paper, dice, pens, pencils. Don’t bring too much, you’ll kill your back dragging it around. Especially if you’re trying new games–you’re not going to need all of your books if you’re trying a different game, yah?
Gum or Mints: You probably won’t have time to run back to the hotel after lunch to brush your teeth, so gum or mints is handy for keeping your breath fresh. After all, you wouldn’t want to run into Mr. or Ms. or Mx. Right at the show and have coffee breath or pizza breath, would you?
Clothing. Bring shoes (two pairs–wear them on alternate days and you’ll feel better, plus you’ll have the option to switch into a different pair if you go out at night after a long day), socks (one pair for each day, plus extras), and clean clothes for each day. See the Prepare For The Weather Section under the General Advice part of this article. :)
Make a Shopping Budget and Set Money Aside Every Paycheck. Figure out how much money you want to spend on goodies from the convention–new games, miniatures, t-shirts, dice, and so on. Divide that amount by how many paychecks you have between now and the start of the convention. That number is how much from each paycheck you should set aside for your Gen Con shopping. For example, if you want your shopping budget to be $500 and you’re paid every other week, that’s about 25 deposits of $20 each. If possible, have your bank automatically move that amount into a savings account every month, or have your payroll from work do it.
Plan to spend time in the exhibitor’s hall. You’ll see some cool booths, spot some new games, and probably run into some “famous” (in terms of the game industry) people. Also, the celebrity autograph sessions take place in the exhibitor’s halls as well. It used to be that you could do an intense crawl through the exhibitor’s hall in just a few hours, but the hall has grown so much that you’ll prolly need to spread out your visit over several days.
Buy must-have items early. If there’s a new release at the show and you want to get it, go get it on Thursday or Friday. Quite often, the really hot items sell out quickly, leaving the lolligaggers empty-handed.
Conversely to the previous point, shop late on Sunday. The dealers want to sell as much stuff as possible at the show so they don’t have to ship it back home again, and they’re often willing to make deals on things. But only do this for things that aren’t must-haves for you, since really popular items probably will have sold out by Sunday.
Similar to the previous point, don’t try to haggle discounts early in the show. If a company brings a book to the show and is selling it for $50, they think it’s worth $50 and that they can sell it for $50. If they don’t have a bundled price option ready for you (like “these four books for $130 instead of the cover price of $160”), don’t push for one, especially not on the early days of the show; they’re not gonna bite, it just makes you look cheap, and it’s basically telling the publisher, “I don’t think this is worth the full retail price you’re asking for.”
Make trades. People in the gaming industry trade stuff all the time, and are always interested in new “swag.” If you picked up a copy of (for example) the Hot New Game Book at the show last year and now they’re all sold out, you probably could trade it to someone else at the show on Sunday for something you’d like better. Same goes if you have an extra 3E Player’s Handbook signed by the designers … in the gaming world, that’s worth more than the cover price. You can even do it with sold-out stuff from this years’ show.
Learn some new games. Let people in the booths demo them for you. Watch other people doing demos. Watch other people playing games (if the GM and players are okay with it).
Prepare for the weather. Midwestern cities in the summer tend to be hot, humid, and sometimes rainy. For every day you’ll be at the show, bring a clean shirt, socks, and underwear. You’ll probably want 3 pairs of lower-body clothes, one of which should be a pair of pants if it suddenly gets cold or you’re going to game in an area that has overzealous AC. Some people think they can get by with only two sets of clothes for the whole convention, but believe me, you’ll appreciate being able to put on a fresh set every day. In fact, bring extra pairs of socks–your feet will thank you for it, and if your bags are too full of loot at the end of the show, you can always leave behind some extra socks. Same goes for underwear–bring extras.
Wear comfortable shoes. If you can, buy some cheap, well-padded walking/running shows the weekend before the show, and wear them at work and at home for at least a day to break them in gently and get your feet used to them. Though you’ll probably be spending a lot of time sitting at a gaming table at the show, you’re going to do a lot of walking, too, and if you’re not used to that, you’ll need some springy shoes, especially as most convention halls are just carpet over concrete. I do not recommend flip-flops, as they generally don’t have good padding and after four days your feet and knees will be aching. Bring another pair of comfortable shoes (ones you’re already used to wearing) so you’ll have something to wear at night for dinner, partying, whatever.
Watch out for early-morning events. More often than not, you’re going to end up tired from gaming or simply being out late, so there’s no sense registering (and paying) for an 8 a.m. event every day when you’re going to miss half of them.
Go to the art show. There’s cool art there, and cool artists. They sell art there, and you just might find a print of the cover illustration from your favorite adventure for sale in the artist’s booth.
Go to the Ravenloft play. Whether or not you like Ravenloft, the play hasn’t been really about Ravenloft for years. It’s really funny–just expect a lot of improv and people walking around on stage with scripts in hand. (Note: Looks like nobody has done the Ravenloft Play in a few years, so I think this is just Sean’s nostalgia at this point.)
Personalize your backpack. They all tend to look alike after a while, so it’s good to tie some identifiable stuff to i, like putting a Disneyland luggage tag on it. You want to be able to pick yours out of a pile with minimal effort.
Carry your backpack, don’t roll it. Those rolling ones take up a lot of space in the aisles which tends to jam up traffic in the halls. Don’t carry so much stuff and you can get by with a light backpack. This also applies to wearing giant backpacks that extend backward for two feet; if you’re standing in the aisle in front of a book, and a person on the opposite side of the aisle is doing the same, you plus your backpacks really narrow the space available for passersby… especially for wheelchair users who can’t easily zig-zag around you.
Exercise now. At the show you’re going to be walking around a lot. You’ll really wear yourself out by Friday evening if you’re not used to this. Start a few months before Gen Con (say, April) and walk one hour a week. Just go for a walk. Walk out for half an hour and come back again. Your feet will become conditioned to the walking and you may lose some weight, too, which only makes the walking easier. Add another 15 minutes each direction each month, and by Gen Con you’ll be ready for all of the walking and standing. (Alternatively, you could ride a bike to get yourself accustomed to all the Gen Con exercise… just doing something active is better than not doing anything active).
Register for games you don’t normally play. You can play your favorite game at home with your friends any time you want (unless you’re one of the poor souls with no gaming group, in which case register to play your favorite game!), so try something new with people you don’t know. If you find a new game interesting when playing with strangers, you’ll probably still like it when playing with friends. The point is: try something different!
Try some pick-up games. If the event you wanted is sold out, there are games going on all over the places in the halls and at tables. Sit down with friends, or ask strangers if you can watch their game. Whether it’s a card game, board game, dice game, or RPG, give it a look, give it a try.
Have Fun. If you’re not having a good time, go do something else. If you’re in a game and the GM sucks, either try to make the game better, plan ahead for your next event, or ditch the game–your time is more valuable than that.
A convention game is almost always a one-shot game rather than a part of an ongoing campaign. For some advice on running a one-shot, check out this article article from Monte Cook Games (it’s slightly skewed toward MCG’s Cypher System RPG, but the rest of it applies to any RPG).
Have fun. If GMing isn’t fun for you, why are you running a game at a convention?
Be prepared. Read the adventure all the way through at least once before you run it, preferably not right before you’re going to run it. (Reviewing it right before your slot to run it is helpful, though.) People are paying money for you to run a good game, don’t waste their time and money by slacking off on preparing.
Consider GMing enough for a GM badge. Basically, if you enjoy GMing, and you’re willing to put in X number of hours GMing at the show, Gen Con will give you a GM badge for free (so you don’t have to pay for an attendee badge). If you like a particular company, see if they’re looking for GMs to run official games for them at the show–you can get a GM badge, plus whatever freebies the company offers you for GMing.
Exhibitors & Publisher Advice
[This is a new section as of 2019!]
Make sure your booth number is visible. Every booth gets a little white sign with your company’s name and the booth number (such as Monte Cook Games #2519). A lot of exhibitors put up their own banners, art, signs, walls, and so on… and take down or cover up that booth info. But booth numbers are how people navigate the exhibit hall. Anyone visiting your booth should quickly be able to see what your booth number is–so they can direct other people to your booth! If you have a really cool product and I want to tell people about it (either in person, via text, or online), I want to tell them “I’m at Terry’s Games, booth 750,” not “I’m at Terry’s Games… in the 700 aisle, about halfway up.” Hiding your booth number makes it harder for word-of-mouth to get people to visit your booth; visitors often have to ask an employee what your booth number is (and the employee might not know or get it wrong), or they have to look up your name in the program book to find your booth number. Don’t make it harder for happy customers to refer other customers to you. If you don’t like the plain white 8 1/2 x 11 sign that Gen Con uses, make your own sign, but make sure it’s visible!
Make your booth number prominent in social media. Pin a post to your Facebook page with your booth number, schedule (especially signing and demo schedules), and any convention deals you want everyone to know about. Do the same thing for Twitter, and change the name of your company’s Twitter name to “[Companyname] at Gen Con booth WXYZ.” Being able to use Twitter as a laser-focused Google search to find an exhibitor’s booth number saved me a lot of time at the show—several times I did a Twitter search for “Campaign Coins,” which immediately told me they were at booth #443.
Post how long your demos are and when the next one starts. If your booth is full of people doing demos, a visitor to your booth doesn’t know if the demo takes 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 30 minutes. They don’t know how long they’ll be waiting to get a chance to demo. They probably won’t stick around long enough to find out, and odds are that person won’t wander by your booth again for that show. Even a simple sign like “Ask us for a 5-minute demo!” goes a long way toward letting that visitor know when you’ll be ready to show them your game.
Post a photo in your booth of a demo in action. Most booths have a company logo, some game art, and the title of the game or games they’re selling. But if the front of your booth is blocked by people shopping or doing demos, anyone passing in the aisle can’t see what they’re looking at. Take a photo of your demo and include it in your booth display so that anyone passing by can see the game and start to get a sense of what it looks like as it plays. Also, put up a product shot, too—otherwise a visitor won’t automatically know if your “two cartoonlike fantasy characters on a blue background” art is for a board game, a tabletop RPG, character-generating software, or a graphic novel.