Tips for Running a Gaming Con

by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)

>Some friends are organizing a local gaming con. Mostly RPG with
>a smattering of board, card and miniature action.
>Any tips, pointers, or links to same?

Well, start by reading Eric Raymond's article on running conventions,, "Conventions At Light Speed", for a lot of pratical tips (

A lot of the issues will depend on the size of the con, of course. I've worked security for a con or two - never a gaming con, though. In general, security aspects probably won't be an issue for a small con, particularly of gamers.

Most of the security problems we had were with media stars. Needless to say, they had real security teams to keep them physically safe most of the time. We just ran crowd-control interference and calmed down the occasional clown who wasn't paying enough attention to where he was swinging his sword.

Really, if you think about it, most con-goers are a paradox; typcially very smart, and very cooperative, not likely to become drunken obnoxious assholes, but at the same time used to thinking for themselves and usually not terribly friendly to authority (and often not good at managing socially awkward situations). On the other hand, they are the least likely people in the world to start a violent confrontation (mostly because they're used to thinking their way through problems, and because they tend to be highly civilized, if not necessarily highly socialized - and that right there is an interesting little conundrum).

That said, I'm gonna name drop for a bit :-). The media stars we dealt with were from the Highlander tv show. Adrian Paul is an okay sort from what I saw, but the red-headed guy who played "Richie" on the series is a real trooper - he gets my vote for real-human-being-who-plays-a-tv-star of the year. Both cons I helped with, he signed autographs for something like eight hours straight. The older guy on the show, the "watcher", who walks around with a cane all the time, really doesn't have any legs from about the knees down. He has great taste in scotch and a pretty bitching jazz band; you haven't worked con security until you've worked a room full of 3000 highlander fans watching a jazz concert and the stars duck their security team and show up :-).

I've found that most con-goers will be very cooperative, if your security people are:

1) basically physically intimidating; i.e. not too skinny and know how to stand and move - though one of our guys was a rail, he still had the right body language.

2) courteous but firm; i.e. know how to ask people politely while at the same time sort of conveying via body language that

a) you assume the hearer will cooperate

b) you are ready to enforce the request

Simplest example; when we had a huge line for the autographs. I don't get the mentality, but apparently a lot of the con-goers considered the whole "autograph & photo with the star" thing to be one of the major factors in deciding to spend a fairly significant amount of money to attend the con.

We had to keep the line in order and make sure everybody knew that flash photography wasn't allowed. First, we figured out the spiel.

Instead of just telling people they had to stay in line, we explained that the fire marshal would shut the con down if we didn't keep the hallway passable.

Instead of just telling them "no flash photography", we explained that the stars were going blind from thousands of flashes, and that there was adequate light for non-flash photography.

We also explained that if there were any flashes, the stars would leave and the autograph session would be over. On reflection, I wish we could have promised to confiscate the camera in question; I think some of those people really wouldn't have cared once they got their autograph and photo :-).

Second, when talking to people who were spreading out and getting them to move back in line, I always assumed that they in fact had not heard me at all talking to the person in front of them. I repeated my entire spiel in a courteous but firm voice and I kept a friendly expression on my face.

At the same time, particularly when I had to make sure somebody moved back into line, I would gently press my palm against their elbow while indicating the direction to move with my other and - sort of nudging them, but without really shoving, just making enough contact and pressure that they could tell I was there. I looked past them, at the location they had to move to, as if we were working together, as opposed to me shoving them around.

I always kept a good sense of humor evident in my demeanor. Assume that everybody is here for the same basic reason, which is to have fun. Make sure that shows on your face and in your body language. Doing this while at the same time conveying that you are not kidding about this is the tricky part :-).

Keep your security people in the loop as much as possible, particularly during crowd control scenes. They'll have to talk to people and persuade them to cooperate, therefore keep them informed about what is happening and why. This may be extremely difficult to do in a timely fashion, particularly when you're dealing with last-minute changes or minor catastrophes, but it's worth it.

Let's put it this way: the better informed the security staff are, the better they'll do at screening the hundreds of fairly trivial but persistent information requests from the general public.

Reading Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion is highly recommended for con security and staff in general. This is not the same book as Suzette Elgin Hayden's The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, though I recommend that book as well. Verbal Judo was written by a cop who now gives seminars to police forces on how to deal with people in confrontational situations. Obviously it's geared towards tense confrontations, but it's very generally applicable.

My favorite example from Verbal Judo: explain carefully, firmly and gently to the person WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO to get out of the situation. Don't assume that they know; obviously if they knew (both on an intellectual and emotional level) then they wouldn't have gotten into this situation to begin with.

Be proactive in liasing with local authorities; obviously start with whomever you're renting the location from, but ask them to introduce you to anybody else; hotel security folks, local cops, local fire marshals. If you have a large enough staff, delegate somebody with good diplomatic skills specifically to contact these people, get their names and contact information, provide them with appropriate contact information for the con staff (cell phones make a lot of sense here), and ideally have somebody at the con suite acting as a sort of communications center.

There are some trade-offs there; on the one hand, it's good to make contact with the authorities, that makes them feel like you're on the ball and have it under control. The authorities do NOT like surprises. On the other hand, you run into the whole "it's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission" syndrome. By contacting them you raise your profile, when depending on the circumstances you might rather just not contact them at all. I don't know. I'd say ask people who are more experienced at the con biz, and ask the hotel managers involved (who may have relevant experience from past cons) about the local authorities' attitudes.

Usually the liason is the con staff security head. If you have enough people on staff, ideally you want one guy as roving security head and another guy at the con suite being liason between security and the rest of the world - the con staff, the hotel staff, the celebrities' staff, and the local authorities.

Gaming Cons

Running games is a whole 'nother topic. I have no experience GMing at a con, however. If you're running any sort of competition, I would generally advise you review the scenarios submitted and watch out for:

a) complicated puzzles that the GM thinks are obviously solvable; have them reviewed by three or four objective outsiders to make sure :-).

b) boolean and/or arbitrary situations that will dictate the success or failure of the entire scenario. I'm thinking here of a con game I watched where the GM had set up some sort of funky teleportation maze with a color-coded switch, and a rhyme of some sort giving clues.

Unfortunately, the players didn't realize it was a maze, because the GM never made it clear to them that they were actually moving. Eventually they got to the black key ("Once you go black, there's no turning back") whereupon the GM told them they were all dead because that's what the black key did. Duh.

c) look for scenarios that accentuate specific qualities, and make it clear that's what the winners will be judged on. For example, if a scenario emphasizes tactical thinking, or role-playing, make it clear that's what the players will be judged on.

d) Avoid having too simple a criterion for selecting the best player, etc. For example, avoid having the players vote on who played the best. If you do have them vote, make that only a part of the criteria and weight it accordingly.

I'm remembering a con game (this one I played in) where we had a team of Traveller characters assaulting a group of terrorists holding an embassy. The person who ended up winning, won because in the random draw he got the character who was actually a spy, who stole something from the embassy safe and took off. The other players all thought this was cool and voted for him as the best role-player - even though he commented later that one of the other players, with a more straightforward role, was far more tactically effective.

e) try to look for scenarios that will lead to timely conclusions, so you can get them over in the course of the con. This one I can't really offer any advice for; when I GM I like long-running plot threads that develop over the course of several sessions and overlap with other plot threads. This may be one reason I've never GMed a con game :-).

f) since you're going to have players sitting down with a group they've never gamed with, with a GM they've never gamed with, playing pregenerated characters they've never seen, do everything you can to counteract this by creating the right atmosphere:

Well-painted miniatures to represent each character.

Well-drawn sketches of each character to go with the character sheet.

Well-written half-page narratives of each character for the players to read upon receiving the character.

If you can come up with some way of setting up the gaming area itself to improve the atmosphere, even better. Ideal wold be semi-private lounges for each game to run in, instead of one huge crowded hall. Semi-private meaning it creates the feeling of separation from the main space without actually being separate, because too much privacy would create another security headache (possible liability issues, particularly at a gaming con with a lot of young people). Of course, figuring out how to reconcile all of those different factors is another question...

Which brings us to our last topic, which is that the physical layout of the con space will greatly affect the security aspects, the management aspects, and the atmosphere. You need a balance ofn choke-points - if there are too many entrances, you'll have problems maintaining security, collecting door fees, etc. Too few, you'll have congestion and maybe even one huge hall with everybody crammed into it, whereupon you'll get the dreaded "cafeteria effect" of crowd noise drowning out everything.

Besides noise, lighting can also be a major factor. Keep that in mind.

You also ideally want to have a separate space for the vendors, preferably with lockable doors, so you can empty it out and lock it down, which will make it much, much easier to avoid pilfering and prevent you from having to have somebody stay there overnight for security. Don't be surprised if you still have vendors who want to stick around and keep an eye on their stuff. You might come up with a compromise involving having somebody stationed in the vendor space while it's closed.

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