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…

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Gencon Day Two, Continued

The highlight of Day Two was, of course, the Pathfinder Society Gencon Special.  My introduction to Pathfinder Society came through playing in the Gencon Special back in 2010, so I was excited to be a part of the GM team this time around.

I won’t talk a lot about the story of the Special, because a) I’m not supposed to and b) I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you when it gets released for general play.  And if you don’t play Pathfinder, well, you just won’t care.  But it was a big, sweeping adventure full of dark tension and fear.  Yeah, that about sums it up.

So what puts the “special” in the Gencon Special?  When you play Pathfinder Society at your local store or game day, it plays out as most table-top sessions do: you play your adventure at your table, and it doesn’t affect the play at tables next to you.  At the Special, however, all tables taking part in the session are playing the same scenario at the same time, and results at your table can (depending on the scenario written) have an impact on what happens at other tables.  And of course other tables can change how things run at yours.

That itself would be cool enough, even with just five or six tables playing.  This year’s Special was run simultaneously at over 100 tables, in two rooms.  All tables played through the same story events, and all contributed to the eventual success (or failure) of the mission.  Add to that Paizo bringing in people in costume to LARP the scenario NPC’s, and an actual life-size prop of the main plot item and the Special becomes a high energy role-playing romp!

I’ll be honest, the night was sort of a blur for me.  Up to this point in my Paizo Con-Volunteer career they have scheduled me to run low level scenarios (in PFS terms, Tier 1-5).  Which made sense; it is my first year volunteering at the “big two” (Paizocon and Gencon) as a Venture-Captain, they might want to test me out where I would do the least harm to players/characters.  I guess for the Special they wanted to test other things, because I was tasked with Tier 10-11, the second highest tier in PFS.  I had, of course, read the information for all the tiers when they sent me the scenario, because I’m like that.  But I hadn’t focused on the higher tiers because it never occurred to me I’d run them.

Surprise!

A combination of luck, preparation and having easy access to all the sourcebooks I needed on my handy “HAL Friday” (my laptop), meant I was able to surmount a little thing like a full four tier jump in difficulty like a champ.  I mean, I assume.  Like I said, it was a blur.  My table seemed to have a great time, we got along famously and they were super excited to be presented with the actual plot prop at the end.  Discussing it with other GMs doing the same tier, it didn’t seem like I missed anything I was supposed to do and I did about as well as they did.  This might mean Paizo will trust me with some higher tiers in the future.  Which I’d love, but maybe we could do a few Tier 3-7 scenarios, just to ease me in?  Please?

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Con GMing Pro-Tip:  Go digital and save your back and brain.  The math for the back is pretty easy: HAL Friday weighs maybe 3-4lbs, compared to the (conservative estimate) 60lbs+ of all my Pathfinder resources.  As for the brain…well, with the right PDF reader (I highly recommend Foxit Reader, though your mileage may vary) You can pre-tab the bookmarks in your reference books.  In PDF terms, this means avoiding the “page flipping” needed to find what you need during a game.  I just open the file, click on the tab I need and roll for initiative.  It may take some adjustment, especially if you are a dedicated bibliophile like me.  But when I’m GMing at a con, and especially an event that is timed, nothing makes my players happier than not having to wait for me to find something in a book.

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We wrapped the 2012 Gencon Special at 1:15am, and tired, happy Pathfinders spilled into the night.  After that I hobbled back to my room and tried to grab a few hours sleep for Day Three!  Which didn’t work out so well, but that is a story for next time.

Gencon Day Two: Houston, We Have a Problem!

If you haven’t already, you can read my Day Zero and Day One posts by following the links.

Dawn broke over Gencon Day Two.  And my head.  I am used to early mornings, but I usually back up that early rising with some good ol’ fashioned sleep.  I have little to complain about with my sleeping arrangements because they are free.  Except for the whole “lack of real sleep” aspect, they are perfect.  Suffice to say next year will see me springing for a cot in my room, or bringing along a really good air mattress.  Sharing a double bed with someone is a sucker’s game unless you get to/want to snuggle.

But let’s not dwell on my sleeping arrangements, let’s get on with the con.  As noted prior I was up early for my first 8am session of the con.  I am a morning person, more by habit than inclination, and so even with a lack of sleep these sessions are never a hardship for me.  Wish I could say the same for my players.  Luckily we were running through a scenario I knew very well, so I was able to lead the poor sleepy dears through it safely.  Mostly safely.  Okay, perhaps more deaths than usual okay 3 character deaths.

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Gencon Protip:  Want your character to live longer?  Refrain from telling your table GM you chose that session as “something to sleep through.”  If you aren’t ready to play, don’t show up.  Better yet, don’t schedule an early morning game for your self right after your 4am Yu-Gi-O tourney.  Because chances are your GM is just as tired as you are, but he/she made sure to be there, switched on and ready to roll dice.  It’s called respect; get someone to help you look it up and help you with the big words.

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With my bruised feelings suitably assuaged by the blood sacrifice of my players, I now faced an entire afternoon free of any commitments until I had to Muster for the Pathfinder Gencon Special in the evening.  I want you all to know that I actually got as far as pulling out my Gencon program guide and looking at what events were available.  I need you to know that the desire was there.  But the body was weak and I went back to my now empty hotel room and slept the most mother-beautiful four hours of sleep any one has slept any when/where.  Which is good, because the Gencon Special was about to dump me in the deep end…to be continued…

Gencon Day One: Lift off!

Day One of Gencon began with me leaping from bed at the crack of 9am!  Which for me is sleeping in; I normally get up between 5:30-6:30 every morning.  But add up the cumulative effects of a 31 hour car ride, an embuggered knee and a pretty busy Day Zero and my brain made the wise decision to ignore room mate distractions and stay in bed.  Since I am going to have to be up at my usual hour for the rest of the weekend, I seconded my brains decision and we ratified it to the enthusiastic sleeping of my body.

First stop on Day One, the Dealer’s Hall!  How to describe the Gencon Dealer’s Hall…  Imagine a gaming store roughly the size of two football fields (I say roughly, because I don’t know if you follow American or Canadian Football.  And if you’re a soccer fan…actually the analogy still works).  Imagine that this ginormous store has split its stock up by company, and each company has sent its own representatives to man these sections.  They make sure anything you want is on-hand, run demos, show you the cool new stuff and so one.  Imagine that this behemoth among gaming stores also featured a full-size gallery of amazing fantasy art.  Imagine an entire section given over to creators of geek product, whether they be webcomics, jewellery, soap, T-shirts, what-have-you.  And this goliath of stores has also put aside a section for fun nerd activities like LARP and videogame demos.  And if that weren’t enough, periodically they bring in nerd celebrities to sign things for you and say hello.

That would be a pretty damn amazing game store, wouldn’t it?  The sort of place you’d wish to have your gamer ashes buried when you die?  That store exists for four days a year my friends, and it is the Gencon Dealer’s Room.  Other dealer rooms dream of growing up to be one tenth as cool.

I’ll talk about demos and such later on, because 1) Wow. ; 2) I only had three hours and I’m not done yet! (re: aforementioned Ginormous); and 3) they deserve a post all their own.  Let me leave it with an understated, “I had fun.” And move on.

My only real shopping for the weekend was done at the Paizo booth, with my sweet, sweet store credit.  As often happens, however, if one does not pay in money one pays in time; the store was busy with a capitol “Buh! How long is the line!?”  I stepped up to what I thought were three marginally long lines at the counter, confident that I might make it out of the booth in under 20 minutes.  Jason Bulmahn, Game Designer and Line Warden extraordinaire graciously corrected my mistake and directed me to the end of the “feeder line” which stretched out and around almost three sides of the 25’-on-a-side booth.  Twenty minutes later I could see the counter again, and ten after that I was back at the front of the feeder line.  And then, 15 minutes later, I had my purchases and my escape into the rest of the hall.

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Gencon Protip:  If you can avoid it, try not to buy anything in the Dealer Room first thing on the Thursday.  Sometimes it can’t be avoided (exclusives, limited copies of new product and so on), but seriously, wait even a few hours if you can.  It could mean the difference between an hour wait in line versus a ten minute wait in line.  And time is not your friend at Gencon!

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That afternoon was the start of my weekend’s GMing servitude in the Pathfinder Organized Play salt-mines.  I arrived a half-hour before my start time because frankly I’m a hero.  Arriving early turned out to be a good choice, because there seemed to be a bit of organizational confusion as to how they wanted to muster us.  But because we are all awesome people things were worked out and my table got underway.

I won’t bore you with a play–by-play, but the table ran well and just about everybody had fun.  I say just about everybody, because one of the guys at my table brought his ten-year-old son along with him to the game and made him play.  Now the boy seemed really smart and I have no doubts that he could rock Pathfinder, if he was at all interested in it.  He was not.  Probably didn’t help that he was given the cleric pre-gen to play (not a good beginner character), but it became clear that no amount of GM-fu on my part was going to bring this kid into the light during the session.  Luckily, before I could kill myself trying the father’s other friend showed up and took over for the son, who was freed to play the DS he always dreamed of.  Things were smoother after that and the table rocked its way to the end of one of my favourite Society scenarios, #3-18 The God’s Market Gamble.

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Gencon Protip:  Hey, parents bringing your kids to Gencon.  I’m super-excited you are exposing your child(ren) to your nerdery.  I can’t think of a better place to do it, because as you know Gencon is pretty damn nerdy.  But there is a right way and a wrong way.  Wrong way: tagging your kid along behind you to events you love that he/she is too young to understand/enjoy, and getting cranky because your child won’t just sit quiet and let you play.  Not to alarm you, but that child is not just an elaborate doll, it is a miniature human.  The right way?  Take in any of the hundred or so age-appropriate events for kids at Gencon, you moron!  If you can’t do that because it will cramp your M:TG draft chances, don’t bring your kid with you.  Because all you are sharing is grief with the rest of us.

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We finished with enough time to allow me a meal between sessions.  Time being what it was, I bought a slice of pizza in the convention centre.  $4 got me a huge slice of mediocre pizza (“Passable and Plenty of it!”) and I waited for the next slot which was another table of the exact same scenario.  Whether it was the warm-up table or the dearth of disaffected pre-teens, my evening slot went really well.  The players were buying what I was selling and there were triumph and tears in equal measure.  Not only that, we finished a bit early, which meant I could head back to my room before midnight.

I know, I know, a hardcore gamer like me, scurrying back to his hotel room like a frightened little mouse.  Look, I have no doubt I could find a game to join at that hour; I passed enough of them on my way out of the ICC.  But the fact is, dorks, I wasn’t there on my time, I was there on Paizo’s.  They trust me to run good tables, and I can’t do that if I am slobbering tired from playing Dawn Patrol until, well, dawn.  If I was there just for me, you bet I’d be gaming.  But I’m not, and it’s called maturity (oh how I hate it so).

Okay, Day One is a wrap!  Games played, merch bought and swag…swagged.  Stay tuned for Day Two, coming to a blog post near you!  Assuming you come here, or subscribe.

Year of the Con: Gencon

Let’s assume I’ve made the standard excuses for a long blog absence, and you have decided to forgive me or not.  Stuff that happened during that absence will end up on the blog eventually but it is not part of today’s subject.  Because today’s subject is…

Gencon!

I made it back this year, against some pretty staggering odds.  Hard to complain too much about that, especially when some of those odds were self-inflicted.  Suffice to say I was pretty much not going to make it this year, until, due to the saint-like generosity of a friend, I was.  I can certainly do without the whiplash inducing status changes, but since I am writing this from a coffee shop in Indianapolis I can hardly argue with the result.  So I will say another hearty thank-you to my benefactor, and get on to the meat of this post.

I won’t go too much into the drive down, except that it was better and worse than the drive down last time.  Like last time there were five of us in the vehicle, and despite its spaciousness five seems to be the number that causes “cabin fever” despite wishes to the contrary.  That was enhanced by the fact we were driving straight through, 31 hours in one shot (with appropriate breaks to switch drivers and for intake/outflow).  It was somewhat offset, however, by the most mother-beautiful air conditioning ever.  I can last pretty much indefinitely in an air-conditioned vehicle; without it I become…tetchy.  The only other thing I’ll say about the drive is kudos to Don, who manoeuvred us through some pretty dense Chicago inter-state traffic at midnight, despite the best efforts of teamsters trying to cut our trip short.  Well done, sir!

Today is technically Day Zero, since Gencon proper doesn’t begin until 9am Thursday.  But Wednesday is the day that Indianapolis is invaded by gamers, like zombies descending on an ICU.  And what is so cool among all the other cool things, is how much Indianapolis embraces Gencon and its participants.  For blocks around the Indianapolis Convention Centre (ICC) the city has posted banners welcoming us.  Shops and stores display a variety of posters and signage welcoming us and reminding us of Gencon specials.  Nobody seems terribly dismayed by the high geek concentration in the crowds downtown, and that is a sort of excellent.

Currently I am waiting in the lobby of the Hyatt, where Paizo is putting me up for the weekend.  Check-in time isn’t for a few hours yet, and I don’t want to be one of Those Guests by trying to wheedle my way into my room early.  The lobby has a coffee shop and free wi-fi, so I have everything I need for the moment.  While the weather is not at the same scorching levels it achieved the last time I was here, it is hot enough to make me glad the Hyatt is attached to the ICC by pedway.  Because I will be one of Those Guests and not go outside all weekend unless I have to.

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Pro Traveller Tip: If you want to freak out your American barrista, forget you aren’t in Canada and try to pay for your coffee with a Twonie.  It’s like I tried to pay with diseased Monopoly-money™.  Once she figured out I was Canadian, and I actually had good-ol’ American cash, everything was good.  Update: The barrista has found a collection of Canadian music and is now playing it. Apology? Revenge? Changes song to song.

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Today is a pretty light day for me, certainly compared to my Pathfinder GM schedule over the rest of Gencon.  Meet my roomies for the next four days, then the Venture-Captain dinner tonight.  After the dinner I may or may not check out some gaming goodness at a local game store.  More likely I’ll go back to my room and put the finishing touches on a few of the scenarios I haven’t run prior to this Gencon (they didn’t exist until this Gencon, making me one of the first GMs to run people through them, which is exciting to me).  And then up early to hit the Dealer Room for 9am, because there are folks to visit and games to demo.

I will update daily, as my schedule allows.  Some updates may be more detailed than others, also schedule dependant.  Honestly, one of them might just be a “Squeeee!”.  But they’ll come.

I get the rare privilege of spending five days in the company of My People. So for now I’m just happy to be here, and working to enjoy the moment while the moments come!