Con-Quest Report (One of a Few?)

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The universally accepted wisdom is that if you’re running a convention, you must be mad. There have been many occasions when I’ve discussed this with the Smart Party and others and basically asked the fundamental question “Its not that hard is it?”. Well, the only way to find out is to run one myself. So I did. This was my first outing as a convention organiser and all new and exciting. Or scary, depends on how you look at it.

The early spring part of the convention calendar is fairly empty, and the Midlands hardly overflowing with events, so a one day con in that neck of the woods, modelled in a similar fashion to the already blooming Dragonmeet in London seemed a fairly sensible idea. Events like Concrete Cow also showed that a one day localised con could work, it was all a matter of scale to maintain the level of charm of the latter, but beef it up (aspirationally) to more the size of the former.

My fellow Smart Party members are all lovely blokes but have things like wives, kids and jobs, plus live all over the country, so chances of getting us lot together to sort a convention out was small, despite many drunken conversations about it. So the first challenge is getting a good team together – fortunately, through going to conventions, carefully vetting my home group and frequenting the forums it meant that the right people were all already available. Again, there was much talk, but eventually Darran took the lead, booked a venue and got things rolling.

As they say in retail, there are three things you need to get right, location, location, location. We’d had a look about in the area, but given the options, the facilities and price, the Derby Assembly Rooms was the only real option. Plenty of space, nooks and crannies, and rather optimistically room to expand made this a good venue in its own right. Add in the central location within the city and hence excellent facilities on the door step and it was a clear choice.

Initially, we were in talks with someone else and even thinking of doing a branded con. This proved a poor fit for us. The vagaries of working with someone you don’t really know showed and it was clear to me that having that right team in place was the way forward and as time marched on, it became increasingly clear that working with people outside the hand-picked core wasn’t going to yield the results we’d hoped for. We made the decision to go it alone. We had faith in our abilities and the good will of anyone we’d had discussions with, so even though we started banging the drum several months after we’d wanted to, we forged ahead anyway and tried not to draw parallels to invading Russia as winter approaches…

Once we’d decided to go for it though, we really went for it. The secret to a good con is in the organisation and prep before the event – much like a good con game comes from the thinking you do in advance more often than the fire fighting that can occur on the day. Also like a game it relies on the people at your table – and in fact, that people turn up at the table.

So what could we do to draw people in? Well, there was a network of contacts and level trust and respect we’d built up over the years, each in our own way, so we got talking to people. We wanted an ambitious and diverse gaming program to bring people in, so the first things we did for GMs was decide they could come in free. We’ve all been on the other side of the fence and run games at conventions and having some sort of benefit for your hard work is always appreciated. As it happened, booking a game to run in advance, turned into a three-fold benefit – which we’ll do well to remember to advertise if this crazy con of ours gets another outing…

1) You don’t pay to get in. If it turns out you don’t get enough players and can’t run a game, well heck, you got in free so no harm, no foul.
2) You get in earlier than everyone else. Don’t seem a huge benefit, but we’ve got the game sign up sheets up – so you can book yourself into something cool before the normal customers get chance.
3) You get a guaranteed table in advance and any special arrangements can be made before you even get there, rather than scrabbling around on the day.

We also needed a way of organising all these games we were attracting.
1) They need to be logged and a table allocated (who’s running what, when) – don’t forget to have a Morning map and an Afternoon map (one for each slot)
2) We need a way of HTML tagging the information for upload to the website
3) We need to produce a sign up sheet for on the day

As this developed organically I had a few Excel spreadsheets with formulas in that helped with all this – for next time I do something like this, I’ll just have One Big Sheet. My current plan is to have the sign-up sheet as a “front page” tab, and when I’ve entered the information into that, it’ll produce a html tagged text chunk to stick on the web, give me a tabular view of the information summary, flag a specific table as booked for the slot etc. This is all done via formulas – I’m sure people with l337 web skills could create a form to do this with a different technology.

One of the curious things about our venue was a couple of discreet rooms hidden away in nooks and crannies and while cool (literally air conditioned in one case), they can be hard to find. We countered this with maps around the place, but crucially, having volunteers on hand (and ourselves naturally) to guide people to their games and tables. Having the tables pre-allocated meant that players and GMs knew where they were supposed to be and headed off there. No need for a muster or shouting – just a plain simple system. There’s the odd disadvantage – sometimes a GM just doesn’t show. Sometimes there are reserve players who don’t get in the game they wanted and finding them something else can be a challenge. To improve this in future we’re going to make it obvious where the demo and drop-in games are. Also, we’ll have some way for GMs to flag if they’ve still got spaces in their games that loose players can slot into.

What if you don’t get enough people at sign-up to run? Well, aside from the above thing, the best solution was for GMs to talk sensibly to each other and agree to consolidate some games. The organisers can help with this, but there were a lot of gains from friendly GMs just chatting to one another and making Gentleman’s (or Lady’s) agreements.

Signage could have been better – and there were some assumptions made between organisers, that should really have involved better communication. I’m comfortable enough with how things went, certainly as this was a fist time convention, due to certain external factors, we were doing everything at much shorter notice than was preferable, and largely because the ethos was around just getting things done rather than too much planning or ratifying. Still, for the next time, if there is one, I’ve got my list of things to do differently.

Talking of flagging things – we really could have done with making it clear about how to get a demo game. There were plenty on and most were together in the same area, but it perhaps wasn’t obvious to a first timer on the con circuit how to get in on one. Given the drop-in nature of some attendees also, its important to have a good supply of walk-in games. Some of the demonstrators were a little shy of approaching people and asking them to jump in on a game – which seems odd, especially for those who were pimping a product. Nevertheless, if we can do something more to help channel potential players into potential games, we’ll do so.

The next one is a tricky one. Too many RPGs? Its one of the perennial problems at convention that there are either too many GMs, or far more often too many players for the game available. The latter being more prevalent and a source of frustration to me at many previous cons, were lack of choice or opportunity seems endemic, I was determined that we would put on as many and as varied a selection of games as possible. The additional issue, certainly for a first time convention, was that we had absolutely no idea how many people would turn up. The vast majority of people were “on the day” customers (pretty much the same as I do if I go to Dragonmeet for example), so gauging the right number of tales was a bit finger-in-the-air.

Ultimately, there was slightly too much choice for the number of people who turned up to roleplay. Another 10% through the door and it would have been a tight squeeze, so overall we didn’t do too badly. Most GMs who didn’t have full games were happy to jump in someone else’s game, or decide among themselves who would run and who would play or do something else. Two or three seemed inconsolable – but if people weren’t interested in the game, they weren’t interested. Would it have been any better if there were more players? Maybe those players still wouldn’t have wanted to play Game X and wandered round the trade hall anyway? For the numbers we had, it would probably have been better to have 2-4 fewer games per slot, but then again, another ten or so people making it on the day would have mitigated this. On the whole I think we got it about right. Allowing for growth next time, it would make sense to run a similar amount of tables, and beef up the demo area

Stats on the games played and other thoughts to follow…

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One thought on “Con-Quest Report (One of a Few?)

  1. Firstly, thanks to everyone involved for running a very slick event. If you can stand the pain of doing it then making it a regular on the calendar would be a very good idea.

    Couple of thoughts –

    Even as a GM I’d prefer to turn up at an event and find too many games not too many players. The negatives are that it’s a bit of a downer if you find you’re running one of the games that people don’t fancy and it’s a shame to find yourself signed on to a game with no other players, but neither are as bad as finding yourself trying to think of other things to do at the gaming con because everyone else is playing games.

    For drop in games, it could be worth your while looking at the clubs that do participation games at the likes of Salute, Colours and the Triples. Some of them have to be local to Derby and they tour round the more wargaming shows with participation games which are largely wargaming lite. The venue had the space to accomodate a couple of these easily and they are an excellent 1-2 hour time filler so that delegates as interested in shopping as gaming can still do a bit more for their entrance fee than peruse the traders without having to commit to four hour rpgs.

    Finally, I’d think long and hard (like you wouldn’t, hah) before lengthening the con beyond 1 day. Largely I guess it’s a question of what the con is supposed to be acheiving. The longer the con the more the emphasis moves to games and the less it moves to shopping. That isn’t necessarily as good as it sounds because if you’re in an expensive venue (which Derby felt like) then you need the traders to help pay the costs and a trader can make pretty much the same take at a one day as they can at a two day (it definitely doesn’t double) also while you’ll get some gamers come for both days, you’ll also dilute a lot of the less committed gamers across both days, which hits your bottom line again.

    My feeling was that ConQuest, if you all decide to keep doing the work on it, could grow to be a very good one day shopping & gaming con for the north. From what I saw it has the venue, the organisation and the public backing to make that happen.

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