Gencon Day Three: Hug your Volunteers!

Day Three was a blur as well, but for an awful instead of awesome reason.  Food poisoning, when you are safe in the comforts of your home, is bad.  The experience is not made better by living out of hotel in a strange city.  So I’m not going to dwell too much on what my Day Three was like.  Despite it all I managed to run two of my three scheduled slots, and thankfully an overflow GM was available to cover my table so I could grab a much needed nap in the afternoon.

Instead, I want to talk about volunteers.  If you have spent any amount of time going to cons you know that volunteers are a convention’s lifeblood.  If everything that had to be done at a convention had to be done by a paid employee, there would only be one big convention for everything every year, to save money.  Do the math yourself at the next con, the equation is pretty simple: #volunteers times total hours of convention times Minimum Wage for your area.  And even that only gives you an estimate, because a lot of volunteer work begins and/or continues before/after the con.

So volunteers make a convention run.  Good volunteers?  Good volunteers can make the act of convention going so effingly effortless for your attendees that they will actually wait in long lines with a smile.  They’ll actually make the times between events enjoyable, even memorable.

I’ve come in contact with two main sets of volunteers this weekend: the Gencon volunteers and the Paizo volunteer team.  And I can say this about both sets, those are some good volunteers.  How so?  Here are just a few things that stood out for me:

– As I was leaving the ICC at the end of a long day (it was after midnight), there were still some folks in the ticket line to secure tickets for the next day’s events.  The registration volunteers, to a one, were all smiling, joking and generally seemed to be enjoying the company of the attendees.  I can tell you from experience, that attitude makes having to be in line comfortable, if not enjoyable.

– Every time I spoke with a Paizo volunteer (and as a GM I speak with them a lot), I was greeted by name and with a smile.  When you are at a convention numbering in tens of thousands of attendees, the luxury of being greeted as a discrete individual is immense.  Did they likely sneak a peak at my con badge before saying hello?  Sure, but who cares?  That they thought it was worth taking that effort is fantastic.

– 6:30am, and a team of Gencon volunteers are pulling a hand-truck laden with boxes of program guides around the ICC, filling the Guide Stations so people can find the program books if they need them.  This was on Day Three of the con, when it could be reasonably expected most people had programs already.  For perspective: the program guides are essentially small books about 140 pages in length and a box of them likely weighs 50lbs.  The smiling, joking team was pulling a hand-truck with maybe 20-30 boxes around a convention centre you could run a marathon in.  And here I was, begrudging having to leave my room to go somewhere and sit down for four hours.

– A Gencon volunteer stopped what she was doing and helped calm a crying child for a mom that was obviously at her wit’s end.  Did she have to? Nope.  But she did.

And so on.  Both sets of volunteers did little human things to make the experience better this weekend.  As a result, hey presto!  The experience has been better this weekend!  Who would have thunk it?

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Volunteer Coordinator Pro-tip:  Besides a great way to make your volunteers feel appreciated, running social events for your volunteers prior to your con is an opportunity to observe how your volunteers deal with people.  In turn, you can put the more socially comfortable volunteers in positions dealing with your attendees.  Everyone wins from that: your volunteers are contributing in a way comfortable and easy to them, and your attendees reap the benefit of that.

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That’s all for now, kiddos!  The sun is rising on Day Four, so I must away.  It is the lark…

Gencon Day Two, Continued

The highlight of Day Two was, of course, the Pathfinder Society Gencon Special.  My introduction to Pathfinder Society came through playing in the Gencon Special back in 2010, so I was excited to be a part of the GM team this time around.

I won’t talk a lot about the story of the Special, because a) I’m not supposed to and b) I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you when it gets released for general play.  And if you don’t play Pathfinder, well, you just won’t care.  But it was a big, sweeping adventure full of dark tension and fear.  Yeah, that about sums it up.

So what puts the “special” in the Gencon Special?  When you play Pathfinder Society at your local store or game day, it plays out as most table-top sessions do: you play your adventure at your table, and it doesn’t affect the play at tables next to you.  At the Special, however, all tables taking part in the session are playing the same scenario at the same time, and results at your table can (depending on the scenario written) have an impact on what happens at other tables.  And of course other tables can change how things run at yours.

That itself would be cool enough, even with just five or six tables playing.  This year’s Special was run simultaneously at over 100 tables, in two rooms.  All tables played through the same story events, and all contributed to the eventual success (or failure) of the mission.  Add to that Paizo bringing in people in costume to LARP the scenario NPC’s, and an actual life-size prop of the main plot item and the Special becomes a high energy role-playing romp!

I’ll be honest, the night was sort of a blur for me.  Up to this point in my Paizo Con-Volunteer career they have scheduled me to run low level scenarios (in PFS terms, Tier 1-5).  Which made sense; it is my first year volunteering at the “big two” (Paizocon and Gencon) as a Venture-Captain, they might want to test me out where I would do the least harm to players/characters.  I guess for the Special they wanted to test other things, because I was tasked with Tier 10-11, the second highest tier in PFS.  I had, of course, read the information for all the tiers when they sent me the scenario, because I’m like that.  But I hadn’t focused on the higher tiers because it never occurred to me I’d run them.

Surprise!

A combination of luck, preparation and having easy access to all the sourcebooks I needed on my handy “HAL Friday” (my laptop), meant I was able to surmount a little thing like a full four tier jump in difficulty like a champ.  I mean, I assume.  Like I said, it was a blur.  My table seemed to have a great time, we got along famously and they were super excited to be presented with the actual plot prop at the end.  Discussing it with other GMs doing the same tier, it didn’t seem like I missed anything I was supposed to do and I did about as well as they did.  This might mean Paizo will trust me with some higher tiers in the future.  Which I’d love, but maybe we could do a few Tier 3-7 scenarios, just to ease me in?  Please?

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Con GMing Pro-Tip:  Go digital and save your back and brain.  The math for the back is pretty easy: HAL Friday weighs maybe 3-4lbs, compared to the (conservative estimate) 60lbs+ of all my Pathfinder resources.  As for the brain…well, with the right PDF reader (I highly recommend Foxit Reader, though your mileage may vary) You can pre-tab the bookmarks in your reference books.  In PDF terms, this means avoiding the “page flipping” needed to find what you need during a game.  I just open the file, click on the tab I need and roll for initiative.  It may take some adjustment, especially if you are a dedicated bibliophile like me.  But when I’m GMing at a con, and especially an event that is timed, nothing makes my players happier than not having to wait for me to find something in a book.

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We wrapped the 2012 Gencon Special at 1:15am, and tired, happy Pathfinders spilled into the night.  After that I hobbled back to my room and tried to grab a few hours sleep for Day Three!  Which didn’t work out so well, but that is a story for next time.

Year of the Con: Gencon

Let’s assume I’ve made the standard excuses for a long blog absence, and you have decided to forgive me or not.  Stuff that happened during that absence will end up on the blog eventually but it is not part of today’s subject.  Because today’s subject is…

Gencon!

I made it back this year, against some pretty staggering odds.  Hard to complain too much about that, especially when some of those odds were self-inflicted.  Suffice to say I was pretty much not going to make it this year, until, due to the saint-like generosity of a friend, I was.  I can certainly do without the whiplash inducing status changes, but since I am writing this from a coffee shop in Indianapolis I can hardly argue with the result.  So I will say another hearty thank-you to my benefactor, and get on to the meat of this post.

I won’t go too much into the drive down, except that it was better and worse than the drive down last time.  Like last time there were five of us in the vehicle, and despite its spaciousness five seems to be the number that causes “cabin fever” despite wishes to the contrary.  That was enhanced by the fact we were driving straight through, 31 hours in one shot (with appropriate breaks to switch drivers and for intake/outflow).  It was somewhat offset, however, by the most mother-beautiful air conditioning ever.  I can last pretty much indefinitely in an air-conditioned vehicle; without it I become…tetchy.  The only other thing I’ll say about the drive is kudos to Don, who manoeuvred us through some pretty dense Chicago inter-state traffic at midnight, despite the best efforts of teamsters trying to cut our trip short.  Well done, sir!

Today is technically Day Zero, since Gencon proper doesn’t begin until 9am Thursday.  But Wednesday is the day that Indianapolis is invaded by gamers, like zombies descending on an ICU.  And what is so cool among all the other cool things, is how much Indianapolis embraces Gencon and its participants.  For blocks around the Indianapolis Convention Centre (ICC) the city has posted banners welcoming us.  Shops and stores display a variety of posters and signage welcoming us and reminding us of Gencon specials.  Nobody seems terribly dismayed by the high geek concentration in the crowds downtown, and that is a sort of excellent.

Currently I am waiting in the lobby of the Hyatt, where Paizo is putting me up for the weekend.  Check-in time isn’t for a few hours yet, and I don’t want to be one of Those Guests by trying to wheedle my way into my room early.  The lobby has a coffee shop and free wi-fi, so I have everything I need for the moment.  While the weather is not at the same scorching levels it achieved the last time I was here, it is hot enough to make me glad the Hyatt is attached to the ICC by pedway.  Because I will be one of Those Guests and not go outside all weekend unless I have to.

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Pro Traveller Tip: If you want to freak out your American barrista, forget you aren’t in Canada and try to pay for your coffee with a Twonie.  It’s like I tried to pay with diseased Monopoly-money™.  Once she figured out I was Canadian, and I actually had good-ol’ American cash, everything was good.  Update: The barrista has found a collection of Canadian music and is now playing it. Apology? Revenge? Changes song to song.

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Today is a pretty light day for me, certainly compared to my Pathfinder GM schedule over the rest of Gencon.  Meet my roomies for the next four days, then the Venture-Captain dinner tonight.  After the dinner I may or may not check out some gaming goodness at a local game store.  More likely I’ll go back to my room and put the finishing touches on a few of the scenarios I haven’t run prior to this Gencon (they didn’t exist until this Gencon, making me one of the first GMs to run people through them, which is exciting to me).  And then up early to hit the Dealer Room for 9am, because there are folks to visit and games to demo.

I will update daily, as my schedule allows.  Some updates may be more detailed than others, also schedule dependant.  Honestly, one of them might just be a “Squeeee!”.  But they’ll come.

I get the rare privilege of spending five days in the company of My People. So for now I’m just happy to be here, and working to enjoy the moment while the moments come!

Enjoying the Con Game

I am GMing this weekend at Underground Con, a one day gaming convention in Calgary.  I am running two slots of Pathfinder Society Organized play, and taking part as a GM in the Iron GM Local competition.  Underground Con is a great grass-roots gaming con, and if you are in Calgary or environs, I recommend you check out their site and maybe stop by for some gaming.  At this time they are about 75% sold out, and pre-reg deadline is this Wednesday, June 6.

It’s no secret I’m a fan of conventions in general; I think they can be one of the best experiences for gamers.  In honour of UGC, I thought I’d share three suggestions on how to get the maximum fun from your con gaming experience.

Try Something New – When you’re at home you usually game with your friends.  You have the games you like to play and while you might try something new occasionally, generally we all tend to stick to what we enjoy.

But a con is the perfect place to try out a game you’ve never played before.  First off, you can do it with no cost to yourself (other than the cost of the convention, of course), since either the con or the game runner have supplied the game.  Many gaming conventions run special beginner-only events and/or demos.  And if they don’t, the games are usually set up to accommodate a variety of skill levels, so you don’t have to worry too much about getting thrashed and can just enjoy learning the game.  Role-playing games at cons usually (should always, in my opinion) have pre-gen characters available so you can just sit down, jump into the story and start slinging dice.  With all that, there really is no excuse not to give something new a try.  Who knows, you might just find your home group’s new favourite game.

Let Everyone Have Their Moment – I think we have all met That Gamer, the one who needs to be the center of attention in every moment.  And you can’t blame them.  There is nothing sweeter than the moment the story rests in your hands, and it all comes down to your roll of the die.  And in your home game it’s likely okay if the focus is on your character for an entire session.  After all there will be more sessions, and a good GM will make sure that all the players get some spotlight time.

But con RPGs are a different beast.  They are usually one-offs and only last about 4-5 hours.  If you keep the spotlight on you that entire time, how much fun do you think the other players are having?  And they paid to be there, same as you.  Don’t they deserve to have just as much fun?  So yes, take your time in the spotlight.  But once you’ve had your time, let someone else have theirs.  And if you want to go a step further, keep your eyes open for the player(s) at the table who might be wallflowering.  Help that player get their awesome shiny moment.  Trust me, there is a lot of fun to be had by making sure other people have fun.

Be Good to the Volunteers – I am generally a calm and friendly sort of guy.  It takes a lot of provocation to get me angry, because anger rarely achieves anything in itself.  But one of the few times I ever got angry was at Gencon 2010, when the guy in line in front of me to pick up event tickets did his best Irate Douche Canoe impression on the volunteer helping him, because his tickets had been misplaced (turns out they were one envelope out of order in the file box).  Not only did I and several other gamers tell him his impression was not appreciated, but we made sure to apologize for him and thank the volunteer for his time.

Look, it takes a lot of work to put on a convention.  And generally all of that work is done by volunteers.  To make sure that you have an enjoyable day (or two, or three, or four), these folks have been working on their own time for months beforehand, organizing, planning and worrying over the event at which you’ve just arrived.  And yes, despite all this planning and organizing, sometimes things still go wrong.  Mistakes happen, because we are human.  Your tickets might be misplaced.  The schedule might shift, because one of the GMs (also a volunteer) has had a personal emergency come up.  Your game might be overbooked.  These things can suck, but they aren’t personal; no one with the con is purposely trying to mess with your fun.

So have patience, and try to meet these little setbacks with a smile.  And at every opportunity, acknowledge the volunteers.  Thank the person who gives you your pass and/or tickets.  Thank your game master.  If you see the volunteer collecting full garbage bags, thank them.  They aren’t getting paid in money, so make your sincere thanks your currency.

What are your tips for enjoying conventions?  What experiences have you had at gaming cons?  Share them in the comments below.

Update: The Year of the Con

Those of you in my inner circle (anyone who reads the blog even once) will know that I declared 2012 The Year of the Con.  I am still on track to attend more cons this year than I have in years past.  But as with many great plans, the exact details have changed since implementation; life has decided to step in and deliver a few curves.  Am I still going to a metric @&%$-load of cons this year?  Yes.  But I’ve had to focus and sort out my priorities, and that has led to some changes.  Let’s take a look…

Emerald City Comicon – Unfortunately, I’ve had to drop this con from my list.  Looking at finances, I could have made attending this con work, but at the risk of missing out on one of the two other US cons I have this year.  As much as I wanted to hit a big con with my buddies, the other two cons now have a higher priority (I’ll tell you why when we get to them).  Since I’m not willing to risk missing out on the other two, this one had to go.  But it is definitely pencilled-in for next year, because there are definitely things I want to see at this con.

Calgary Expo – Given their big announcement recently (all the ST:TNG principle cast? Yes please!), it breaks my heart to have to drop this one.  But my new job at Wizard’s Comics means that I have to stay behind and watch the store while the owner and my boss are flying the Wizard’s flag at the con.  Such are the trials and tribulations of geekdom.  There are two silver linings to this cloud: 1) there is an outside possibility I can make it down for at least the Sunday, which would be cool; and 2) there are people attending that will allow me to give them money to get autographs from some of the guests.  So the Calgary Expo won’t be a total write-off, but my participation is definitely diminished.

Paizocon – Okay, here’s the first piece of positive news!  I am all registered, and locked in to run some games at the event.  I have transportation worked out, thanks to the Venture-Captain from Winnipeg; I’ll join him and a few friends in their road-trip to the con.  The only thing I haven’t done is book my hotel room, but I can now divert the funds I was saving for ECCC (*sniff*) to do this sooner rather than later.  So Paizocon is a definite go, and I am looking forward to hanging out with the company for which I volunteer.  Plus, an entire weekend of Pathfinder? Yes please!

Gencon – This con is a definite go as well.  As a Venture-Captain I get advanced dibs on volunteering to run Pathfinder events at Gencon, and I have volunteered for enough slots that Paizo is taking care of my weekend pass AND putting me up in a hotel room (with 3 other GMs).  So all I have to do is get there.  Which is where the Nerdbus comes into play.  Kris over at Warp One Comics is organizing a road trip from Edmonton to Gencon for any nerds that want to make the trip.  You can get the full package (weekend pass, hotel and transport) for a staggeringly reasonable $650.  Since I have two out of three covered already, I am opting for just transport which gets me a price reduction on that.  And looking at the latest update, it looks like it’ll be Nerd RVs as opposed to a Nerdbus.  Which makes a heck of a lot of sense, both for comfort and scale-ability of the trip.  So if you were thinking of going to Gencon, I think Nerdbus might be your best bet.

At this point you might be thinking, “Okay, but so far that is just two cons.  How does two cons equate to the Year of the Con, slappy?”  First off, that “slappy” was hurtful and unnecessary.  Second, I am adding some more cons to the list.  I’ll post later with details, but I have added the following conventions to my Year of the Con: Pop Culture Fair (March 4);  Edmonton Collectible Toy & Comic Show (April 1);  Prairie Con 33 (June 1-3); Underground Con (June 9); Animethon (August 10-12); and of course Pure Speculation is on the list as well.  So fret not, fair reader, I am packing the year with conventions big and small.

What conventions are you hitting this year?  Talk them up in the comments below…