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Convention Conversion

by Steve Darlington

In which the author suggests that to game is human, to convene divine.


Conventions are a very important part of role-playing. They allow the coming together of a fragmented, indivualistic and diverse hobby, strengthening it both as a community and an industry. They enable a sharing of ideas and experiences far beyond what any magazine or newsgroup can. Yet they have acquired somewhat of a bad image. Possibly due to the unflattering one often associated with other conventions - particularly Star Trek ones - many gamers see conventions as an unimportant optional extra. Something that only the really obsessive players can be bothered forking out all that cash for, a trifling excuse for those mad AD&D fanboys to get together and discuss how their twentieth level drow slew a pack of Tiamats last week.

I know this because I used to be part of the group that held that opinion. But I've been converted, and I've discovered the truth is very different. Even if conventions did nothing whatsoever for the gaming community, even if they didn't allow you to meet people, or buy cheap stuff, or win prizes, or expand your gaming experiences, they would still be worth going to. Because above and beyond every other point, conventions are fun. Not just a little fun either, I'm talking enjoyment levels that go off the scale, more fun than Nicole Kidman (or Mel Gibson) and a jumbo family tub of 99% fat-free butterscotch icecream.

The author apologises for preaching to those of you who are already converted

And yet, so many gamers I know don't go to conventions. They're happy playing their games, week in, week out, never knowing what they are missing out on. I was like that once too. But I saw the light. So in order to help others reach the same awakening, I thought I'd detail some of my experiences with conventions. That way, I may be able to allay some fears, spark some interest, and open some eyes to the fantastic world that is the role-playing convention.

Two years ago, I wasn't a convention kind of guy. Sure, I was into role-playing: I played fairly often and owned a shelf full of old D&D stuff, but conventions were just too out there for me. All that organisation and dedication seemed just too obsessive; like the difference between watching Star Trek, and dressing up as the characters. And hadn't anyone else spotted the inherent contradiction in a social event for geeks? Besides, role-playing was a backyard hobby, something you only did with your friends, at home, quietly, where no-one could see. Nobody would go out and do it with complete strangers!

And this is role-playing we're talking about here. A game which requires a lot of difficult work to create something creative, involving and evocative, something that can be embarrassing even around your best friends. So how could you just throw people together and hope it works?

But it does, as I found out earlier this year, at my first real convention, BrisCon 98. I had, however, attended BrisCon 97, but only for a quick visit, to get some impression of how it worked.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of first stumbling across the wargaming room. When it comes to obsession, wargamers far exceed role-players, and a whole room full of paper mache mountains, toy soldiers and fat guys in army greens arguing with twelve year-olds about movement rates can be a very alarming sight, especially if you're a stranger to the wargaming universe. I fled in fear, only to find myself in something equally scary - a room full of Magic players. Now I was really worried - I was surrounded by geeks!

This was, however, just perfectly normal culture shock which everyone experiences to some degree the first time they attend a convention. Every where you look, you see geeks: fat (or emaciated), balding, myopic, clueless weird-ass freaks whose entire wardrobe, including their shoelaces, bears a Star Wars image. Either that or they have somehow come to the conclusion that fingerless gloves, black jeans and a cloak represent sensible wear in an Australian summer. It's not that you are blind to the fact that you firmly belong in this group. It's just that, when first beheld, geeks en masse can be a frightening thing to behold.

The point is, on your first time, you should expect a bit of culture shock. But the urge to disassociate yourself from these losers soon passes, and after a while you'll realise most of the people look normal - in fact, they look a lot like you. Better still, they talk a lot like you too. For among this group, every joke about physics, every critique of Star Trek episodes, every obscure Python reference and, in particular, every no-really-there-I-was-in-this-game story will be instantly understood by all. It is a heady experience to be able to casually bring up the virtues and flaws of CCGs without wondering for a second whether everyone will know what you are talking about.

Have any good convention stories? Why not tell us about it?

Even better is the fact that you soon find that as well as sharing your mindset, most gamers are also very keen to share their games. With a wander around a convention, you're likely to get a chance to play some great games, both classics and the latest ones straight out from Germany. You can play Magic with someone who's spent more then the US GDP on their cards, or enjoy watching someone else get slaughtered. It's a lot of fun.

And if you're not doing that, conventions normally have a few other things to catch your attention - displays and entertainment, booths from major gaming stores and conventions, cheap and second hand stuff for sale, posters and flyers and all sorts of possibilities. For once, all the gamers in your city crawl out of their own private holes and you suddenly get this strong feeling of community; you are no longer alone. That's a very empowering feeling, and makes you feel like your hobby really is something special.

But that's only the icing on the cake. The purpose of conventions, the ultimate point behind the whole shebang, is the role-playing. This is the supreme joy that is conventions, the key that turns a few days of bonding into gaming nirvana.

I discovered this when I attended BrisCon 98, earlier this year. I was a little nervous and apprehensive at first, but when I walked out I was a convert for life. It is nigh impossible to communicate just how breathtakingly enjoyable conventions are. But to give you some idea of what they are like, I thought I would briefly detail my experiences at my latest convention, ConJure.

For a further look at ConJure, check out Brett's article

The first rule of conventions is that the first session is never superb, because it usual begins at some god-forsaken early hour, like nine am. Most gamers are not morning people, and having to get up that early on a Saturday adds insult to injury. So most of the people around the table of your first game are going to be feeling pretty sleepy, dopey, grumpy and even a little bashful, since they will still be acclimatising to the idea of role-playing with strangers. No-one is particularly ready to roleplay. Likewise the GM won't be quite on form either, since they haven't run their adventure yet, except in the playtests. So you can't judge a convention by its cover.

This particular morning I had also managed to spill boiling hot coffee all over myself on the drive in, and thus was not only tired but exceedingly pissed off. Gritting my teeth with bitter determination, I blundered into the registration area, where I had some more caffeine and was greeted by a bunch of nice people who told me where the role-playing rooms were. One of the great things about role-playing is that all you need to play it is a table and a few chairs, making a classroom the perfect venue. Wandering down the college hallways, I had flashbacks to my tutorials, but soon found the door bearing a blue-tacked sign reading "Star Trek: Final Solution". My first game.

Star Trek: the Role-Playing Game was originally created by FASA, but a completely new version has just been released from Last Unicorn Games

I was not a little nervous about playing a Star Trek game, for although I can tell the difference between Data and Lore, I am not exactly the biggest fan of the show. Nor had I ever played the RPG. So I was worried that I would be surrounded by fanboys, ready to laugh at me when I didn't know what a variable phase inverter did, or heap scorn upon me for asking why I didn't have any hit points. Or worse still - what if they were like really good role-players and I couldn't make the grade? I decided to keep my mouth shut and go with the flow.

Three hours later, I had completely forgotten about my lack of sleep, my spilled coffee and all of my previous worries, and was having a ball. I still didn't really know my fellow gamers, but after saving the universe together, we were getting along great. The game wasn't superb - the scenario was a pretty corny find-out-the-deal-with-this-big-ass-alien-ship, and the PCs were a little unbalanced. But this was Star Trek - being corny only helped the atmosphere. Anyway, we had a lot of fun, because we were role-playing. Really roleplaying.

Roleplaying at a convention can be quite different to roleplaying at home, for a few reasons. The first thing you notice is the focus. Since you don't know any of the other players, there's no real socialising. Nor are there any snack runs, or televisions, or other members of the household wandering around, or any of the myriad of things that normally distract from your weekly game session. Being in a classroom also helps focus things. And you're with a bunch of people who are there to play - not to eat junk food, slay a few orcs and make a few puns, but to role-play. Which can be very illuminating.

This does not mean that everyone there is an obsessive freak, nor does it mean that there is suddenly no room for joking around and quoting Python. It just means that when things do concentrate on the game, everything works. And soon you begin to see that all those amazing heights to which you always dreamed gaming might reach are not only possible, but could happen right now, all due to the second thing you notice: the talent.

For some tips for better games, you need to look no further than this magazine

Conventions allow you to play with a wide variety of gamers. A few will only be average roleplayers, but most of them are bloody good. And some are exceptional. To the point where reality quickly becomes blurred and you forget there is a person hiding behind the character. And when you are surrounded by that sort of skill, you can't help but play better yourself. Even more impressive than the players, however, are the GMs. They are all highly experienced at tailoring their adventure to any group of players. Plus they have spend a lot of time testing, refining and practicing the scenario, so it runs flawlessly. You just have not lived until you've played under a convention GM.

But the really great thing is that despite this focus and talent, things never become intimidating. This is because the third thing you notice is that everyone is really nice and friendly; a bon homie exists throughout the whole place. The players know that they get the most out the game when everyone is playing at their best, so they will always be ready to guide you or answer questions, and they'll never give you any shit. And the GM in particular will help you out - they give you your character, carefully explain the rules and nurse you through every step of the way. Because that's their job - to make sure everyone has fun, and they do it very well.

So even though Star Trek was a little lame in the plot department, I still had a very fun morning. It was going to get a lot better.

After a bite to eat, I ventured further down the hallway to the room marked Deadlands. This is a rather brilliant new Wild West game with a dash of Call of Cthulhu, which uses a lot of dice rolls, plus playing cards and poker chips. However, the GM (and his two supporting GMs) handled it well: with three hands on deck, we quickly got the system under our belts and could really enjoy the fabulous scenario. This was a fast-paced, combat-filled rollercoaster ride of an adventure that made the most fun out of the wonderful Western setting, as we shot some goldarnit bandidos full of holes with our peacemakers. The explosive climax involved one character flying around on his out-of-control rocket boots while a werewolf was trying to bite his head off. A great dramatic fight to end a great game.

Even better than Deadlands was the Call of Cthulhu game I enjoyed the next day. This was superbly written, with five characters we could really sink our teeth into. And with our relationships to the other characters clearly established, it wasn't long until we were playing them to the hilt, without a second of out of character chatter. Soon we were too busy arguing with our spouses to worry about the approaching horror, which crept up on us at a brilliantly slow pace. By the end, I was actually terrified; but also exhilarated that I'd become so immersed. It was one of the best games I have ever played.

Everway is published by Rubicon Games. Cthulhu can be found at the Chaosium site and Deadlands is published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group

Similarly intense was the Everway game I played afterwards. The GM was an expert at creating atmosphere, and soon we were completely lost in his bleak vision of war-ravaged world, to the point that we all soon felt seriously depressed. However, the game wasn't as tightly plotted as the Cthulhu one, and it lost interest. And in the end, we failed to stop the centuries-old war in the half an hour we had left, and completely screwed up the game. Still, that's conventions - some times the games work, and sometimes they don't. The great thing is that even when they don't, they're still pretty good.

Of course, you shouldn't think that all convention games are so serious and intense. Some games throw away all those ideas of a plot, or drama or immersion and are rather designed to direct all that gaming talent into just being humorous and silly. Such a game was my next stop, Toon, an almost freeform RPG which is based on the universe of cartoon characters, complete with falling anvils and portable holes. As you can imagine, this gets pretty chaotic, but who cares? All that matters is that you are pissing yourself laughing, and most of the time, you are.

And so the convention came to a close, and those still around gathered in the main hall for the prize-giving. Over those two days, I'd played some of the most involving, most thrilling and most fun games I've ever played in my life. And in between them I'd played some great boardgames, met a lot of interesting people, bought some new stuff, and generally had an amazing time. I was feeling over the moon, and then, to top it all off, I unexpectedly won a prize for my roleplaying in one session. Nothing beats winning a prize for having fun!

To find a convention near you, check out this site

For fifty-one weekends of the year, we put the work into our games, and a lot of the time, for little return. Despite our best efforts in designing, organising, running and playing, that ultimate gaming experience eludes us all too often, simply because of all the little distractions and hiccups that make up life. But for one weekend, some very nice people do all the effort for us, providing the best players and the best GMs, and creating an environment where that magic happens constantly. Conventions then, can represent roleplaying at its very best and most entertaining, when our hobby really does become a way to turn dreams into reality.


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