Your exploits at RPG cons

The first time I went to a gaming con was Arcanacon 1983, in Melbourne. I went by train from Sydney with a group from the UNSW RPGA (which was a bit of an ordeal), and won the The Fantasy Trip tournament. Then I wrote the AD&D module “Escape for Fortress Fohgidon” at the UNSW RPGA’s inaugural tournament in 1983, and organised its successor in 1984. From 1987 to 1990-something I collaborated with Tonio Loewald on his ForeSight multi-forms at Cancon, and was regularly one of his GMs. In I think 1995 I collaborated with Andrew Smith to write and present Canberra by Night at Cancon, and nearly GMed a young woman to death. The following year I wrote the disappointing SF half of a pair of Jack Vance freeforms at Cancon and played the magic mirror Persilian as a ringer in Andrew Smith’s fantasy half of the diptych. And then in 1998 I returned to Sydcon (successor of the UNSWRPGA tournament among other antecedents) to write and present a large freeform called Uninvited Guests and set in my SF setting Flat Black. Which was a moderate success. In 2004 I wrote and ran at Phenomenon a conventional tabletop adventure SF thriller in disguise as police procedural set in my usual SF setting Flat Black. I consider that to have been an unalloyed success, and as a result of its reception I was invited back the next year as a guest designer. Unfortunately my health wouldn’t let me get to the con, nor has it let me get back there since.

So then. What’s your history at gaming conventions? What do you generally do there when you go? For the benefit of the less hardened members of the audience, what happens at the cons you go to? Who would you recommend the experience to?

Do you suspect that cons in the USA, cons in the UK and Europe, and cons in Australia and New Zealand might be actually distinctly different?

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There are cons and cons… I think I probably went first to Games Day (London, for me about 1982-83), but that was less of a role-playing convention and more an opportunity to buy stuff. And, to be fair, to go “oh wow, there are lots of people into this role-playing thing”.

The first “proper” convention I went to was Games Fair in Reading (1984), which in form was basically a large gymnasium filled with tables. (Maybe players weren’t as loud in those days, or maybe the great height helped; more recently I’ve had much more trouble with this format.) I went to those until they stopped, and to UK Gen Con at Camber Sands (in November; I brought an Arctic-weight sleeping bag rather than coins for the electricity meter). Though I rather dropped out of RPG cons for a while; I never went to the UK Gen Cons that were held at universities, and only once to the ones at Olympia.

Because I had enough money to do it, I went to US Gen Cons for several years, starting in 1988. That certainly had a very different feeling, but some of that was just because it was an event that publishers thought it worth bringing new product to, rather than the much more play-orientated UK cons. I ran games there quite a few times, and generally they went well.

I’ve never been to an RPG con outside the UK/USA.

For several years at UK Games Expo and Dragonmeet I’ve been running games (demo scenarios for GURPS), but the faff has caused me to stop: being put in a crowded room with a bunch of D&D groups isn’t conducive to building atmosphere, quite often players simply don’t bother to turn up, and – well, I hate to say it, but I think the name “GURPS” puts people off even though it’s always clearly stated that no experience is needed. It’s dispiriting to be all ready to run a game only to find that nobody’s signed up for it.

On the other hand I’ve been to all but one of the games days (running games at most of them) and they’re great: a single RPG session from noon to about 4pm, then off to a local café for supper (and sometimes light board games, though not so much lately). But those are limited to about 30 people, most of whom I know at least to say hello to.

What’s left? At Stabcon (twice a year, originally a Diplomacy convention hence the name) I mostly play boardgames but I usually play or run in one or two RPG sessions, and I know most of the GMs by now so the chances of getting a game I won’t enjoy are quite low. Otherwise I tend to go to boardgaming conventions more than RPG ones.


In 1988 Tonio Loewald, Peter Johnston, Sean Case and I drove from Canberra to Melbourne in an old Volvo 240 to present an ambitious ForeSight game¹. We arrived to find that the organisers had left us off the entry form and out of the scheduling software, so that we had no players whatsoever signed up to play.

On the way back we were hit in the middle of the windscreen by a brick that fell off the load of a truck doing 110 in the opposite direction, while we were being hunted along at 110 by a tailgating semi-trailer.

¹ To Pierce the Heart of Darkness, a horror game set in the Belgian Congo in 1878.

I was on the committee that set up the Furnace con at Garrison hotel. These would and are games and only games cons. This then saw the birth of other “Garricons”, all subtly different.
They are focused and have a style similar to Concrete Cow but quite different to a con like Continuum or Conception or Contingency.

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Yesterday Tina and I drove down to Manchester for another Grogmeet, a small but very popular con which this year took place in Fanboy 3. Since the shop relocated it has room for several tables upstairs on the shop floor and many more in the basement gaming area. Great fun (we played HeroQuest and Mouseguard) and even a surprise appearance from Mr Michael Cule of this parish.

These days I’m definitely preferring smaller conventions of this style. The UK Games Expo is great, but it’s also turned into a gigantic, crowded and very expensive event. I ran some games for Lou Zocchi at GenCon many years ago, when it was in Milwaukee, and found the scale of it just as overwhelming, but made easier by the novelty of location and the fact that I was in my early twenties, less troubled by lack of sleep… At my age now a man cannot live on Pop Tarts and Jolt Cola alone.

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Had I not been boardgaming in Derby (there were several hundred yards between flood and hotel, honest) I’d have joined you there.

Stabcons are at about the top end for a small convention - 200ish people perhaps? Mostly boardgaming but with a noticeable role-playing component.

I miss the Cambridge RPG cons of course, but I’m not volunteering (and anyway I gather the venue is effectively no longer available).

I miss the Cambridge RPG cons.

So do … several of us, but probably not enough to resurrect them at current hire and accommodation rates for Cambridge college facilities.

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Yup. They’ve found a far more agreeable summer business, in hosting academic summer schools. Those don’t bring so many people, but their demands are simpler, and they’re there for much longer.

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I think my first gaming con was Drak-con, a charity gaming con for Live Aid’s charity in 1986. It was organised partly by the University game soc but mostly by a local school teacher who ran the RPG club at his school. It went well enough that there were annual Drak Cons for years afterwards.

It was so long ago that I can’t remember much about it, apart from the venue didn’t stay open in the evenings, so there was no evening slot. I think I ran Traveller 2300, but I may be mis-remembering that from other Drak Cons.

These days my regular cons are:

  • Summer Stabcon in Stockport. Nice mix of RPGs and boardgames. Plus a chance to chat with folk I don’t see in person very often. I’m running more and more stuff at Stabcon. I’ve worked up from running 1 game to running in 3 of the 6 slots, and staying on Sunday night so that I can actually be there for the whole of slot 6.

  • Spaghetti Con Junction. Small 1 day RPG con which happens twice a year in Geek Retreat, a gaming cafe in Birmingham. which last time had so many people stepping up to GM that there were 4 or 5 games in each slot without players. I catch the early train, game in the morning and afternoon slot, then get the train home. They don’t do an evening slot, but the afternoon RPG finishes at 19.30.

  • North Star Con in Sheffield. My only experience of the Garrison cons, and I love it. It is science fiction themed, so there is no disappointment of 90% of the games on offer being D&D, Pathfinder and CoC.

  • Dragondaze in Newport. It’s not far to travel and it is cheap entry. However, it has become clear that Dragondaze is largely a trading/shopping event. Most of the punters don’t want to play in a 3 hour game. Many just want something to keep the kids entertained for an hour before they go clothes shopping in the mall next door. So I’ll probably keep going to it, but I’m not bringing games to run any more. It is less frustrating to cluster with the other hardcore RPG players and enable a couple of GMs to get their games up and running, than it is to sit around hoping to get enough players to run your own game…

  • I almost forgot Concord - Bristol’s own RPG con. Small, but starting to grow. Needs a bit more organisation and I disagree with their policy of charging folk entry and then charging them more to play in the RPGs. But I’ll support them by running things, and hopefully it will grow to a size where they don’t need to charge extra for RPGs.

I’d love to do more gaming cons.

Pity. I too miss the Cambridge RPG cons

I’ve only ever been to UK games cons, but there have been a few types:

Games Day was largely about buying stuff, and its sheer scale made it interesting for that. It was also a chance to meet up with people I didn’t see often, and some interesting games were played as a result of that.

Small cons that are largely about playing games, of which Stabcon was the first I encountered, and the one that I’ve been to the most, over 50 of them (twice-yearly).

The Cambridge cons were something I helped invent. They were a deliberate application of the social structure of an SF convention to RPG gaming. So we had a Guest of Honour, a programme of panel discussions, talks, occasional films, a masquerade, a bar open long hours, a dealer’s room, and the rest of the SF con paraphernalia. Naturally, this was most interesting for the people who were both gamers and SF con-goers. It’s a lot more work than a game-playing con, which is probably why the idea has not caught on.


Indeed, a pure game-playing con is “only” a matter of getting a room or two and putting people into them. (Which can be not “only” at all, but it is as you say distinctly less trouble than having all the other stuff too.)

The pure games con is IMHO more tricky than at first apparent.
One needs 100% utilisation match GMs to Players.
One can’t disappoint players, so one always has to disappoint GMs.
Players expect a game but also expect the freedom to bail out.
Seminars, trade halls, etc. create a buffer that can absorb this ‘perfect fit’ conundrum.
There are different strategies and I have seen and used them all. They have benefits and disbenefits.
Oh and then there are the issues around game signups: 100% in advance, stable until 'flu hits; no prebooks, queuing frenzy and sharp elbow work; which is why a mixture of the two seems to upset everyone just a little and may be optimal.


YSDC’s Convocation has a set number of GMs (usually with one reserve in case of illness); signups are on the day, but there are just as many player slots as players to fill them. (Some GMs post their adventure blurbs beforehand). That works pretty well, but expanding it to more than the 30ish people it covers now would be hard work.

That’s with just a single game session. When I used to go to Concrete Cow there were two or even three, but all games in a particular session started at the same time; if one was one of the unlucky GMs there was often some difficulty in finding a game to play in. (50ish people?) There were a few dealers, but not enough that you’d choose to spend half the day visiting them rather than playing an RPG.

The Cambridge cons (100-200?) didn’t have formal sessions, but there seemed to be a general sense of “morning” (after breakfast), “afternoon” (before supper) and “evening” (after supper) games, as there is at Stabcon, even if the exact start times varied a bit. Again, there were/are other activities; panel items at Cambridge, boardgames at Stabcon.