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…

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.