In this Muse on Weekends series, I’ll be talking about my experiences of running conventions, the advice I received and wish I’d received, and the preparations for the upcoming Irish Masters in 2015.
Part 1: Running Conventions Is Easy, And Other Lies
I think every gamer who has been to a convention has had a dream of starting their own. If it’s a good one, a convention always has a lightning in a bottle moment, when things coalesce and people have enduring great memories. On the way home, especially if you’re driving, I find the conversation inevitably turns towards how the convention was run and what the occupants of the car would do differently. After that corner is turned, the talk picks up pace, starts to roll, and sooner or later somebody is bound to say, “We should totally start our own convention!”
Where do you go from there? In 90% of cases, nowhere. The example above comes from How I Met Your Mother, where the incorrigible Barney Stinson is forever making resolutions and declarative statements. I had a good few friends like that when I was about 17, and when I’ve had a few drinks I usually lapse into this state. It’s pretty addictive – you get seized by an idea and planning things in a state of excitement is one of the best conversations to have. This is the Platonic realm of convention-running, where you are running the best possible convention in the best of all possible worlds. Everyone will show up, everything will run smoothly, and your convention will become one of those long-running, well-loved staples of the gaming scene.
Waking up the next morning with a sore head and finding you’ve written plans all over your bed sheets is hard, most of all because in the harsh light of day you know it’s not that easy. First of all there’s the money. Hiring the hall is the number one expense of a convention; even if you can pay after the event is over you still have a couple grand looming over you. Things like table rental, transport, production, etc. all cost money, and if you’re an individual it’s probably more than you’ve got to spare. Second, you’ve got to have people to help you. While it is possible to run a big event by yourself, for the sake of your mental and physical health I’d recommend against it. Your friends might have been really enthusiastic while you all had a few drinks in you, but now that they’ve gotten back to reality they’ve probably realized you are not the inspiring leader they thought you were at 2 in the morning when you suggested a late night burger.
And finally, the biggest hurdle: do you actually want to do this? Embark on a few months to a year of constant low-level organization, followed by a few weeks of frantic activity, and finally a weekend of running to and fro like a headless chicken? Conventions are great fun for attendees, and if you’re running them well the buzz will keep you going. But if you’ve forgotten something, or attendance is disappointing, it can be a let-down even after all your hard work. It is hard work, and the big question is whether it’s worth it.
Let’s assume for the sake of this series that you are still interested in running a convention. I’m going to give some advice in this article and others like it. Some of it has been passed down to me by venerable convention-runners, some of it I’ve had to learn the hard way, like seeing what happens when you don’t do X or forget Y. All of it is common sense, but often when you’re in the think-tank phase of convention planning this is exactly the sort of thing that won’t occur to you.
I’ve been on the committees of nine conventions in various roles over the past eight years, and I’m currently in the planning stages for another. In addition to this, I’m on the committee for next year’s Irish Masters, which is becoming a convention in its own right. So I have a little experience, some of it is unique to the Irish gaming scene, but I’m hoping it’s applicable to the wider world. Sure we’ll see!
Standing On the Shoulders Of Giants
One of the exciting things about organizing the Irish Masters is that it’s the first year. Every year thereafter will have that element of, “Well, what did we do last year?”, but this year it’s a blank slate. It’s also scary; we don’t yet know what will work. Thankfully, many of us have experience organizing previous conventions.
For the most part, we got this experience from running university gaming society conventions. It’s changing now, but for many years Ireland’s gaming scene revolved around the different college cons. The main “national” gaming convention, Gaelcon, was established by a self-appointed Irish Gaming Association, many of whom were veterans of one gaming society or another. Our convention, Leprecon, took up a lot of our time. From when we first joined the society as freshers we were pegged as volunteers; if we did well we could get on the society committee the next year, and probably have a role on the committee for the convention itself. For a few weeks before the convention the society room became a sweatshop, producing terrain, preparing RPG scenarios, or in one memorable/infamous year painting a thousand toy soldiers for a special event that never happened.
By the time I came along, Leprecon was in its 27th incarnation (not necessarily its 27th year, it’s complicated), so a lot of things were set in stone. The committee, who were all about 2 or 3 years older than me, seemed like old salts with decades of knowledge and wisdom. In reality they were no different than I, drinkers with a nerding problem. There’s nothing like that first convention when you’re on the inside track of volunteering, unaware of how the sausages are made but still curious about finding out.
That really was a Leprecon to remember. Someone decided it would be a great idea to have a “Love Ulster” parade, someone else decided it would be an even better idea if every gurrier in Dublin showed up to set the place on fire and loot Foot Locker. Roving bands of the disenchanted threatened to converge on the convention hall. I was told to stand outside and direct everyone indoors for their own safety. After about ten minutes of this it occurred to me that this directive probably included me.
As a first con that one stuck in the mind and gave me a taste for it. Next year I was treasurer, the year after that logistics (not my strong suit), then RPGs for a few years, one unmemorable stint as Con Director, then back to RPGs for one more redemptive year. Every year those old salts were ready and willing to give sage advice; I even listened to some of it. I went through phases of, “No way old man, this is my time!” and generally returned to crave more wisdom, properly penitent.
The gaming society system is good while it lasts. Where it starts to break down is when one generation of gamers moves on into the post-society phase. Especially now where gaming is so ubiquitous and (in Dublin anyway) there are other places to play apart from a society room or Games Workshop, going along to the society room becomes much harder than going to the gaming shop where everyone will be anyway, or just staying home and inviting people around because you don’t live with your parents anymore. This leaves a new generation, still bound by the society’s constitution to run a convention, but with no experience or help. Then the cycle begins again: people learn by making mistakes and pass on their knowledge.
If you’re looking at the three things that normally stop the sober mind from contemplating convention organizing, then you’re covered handily by the college society model. Worried about money? Usually previous years have generated enough income to give you a safety net, although you have to leave that money back where you found it of course. Some colleges even provide a free hall and tables, taking care of the major expenses right away (we never had that, boo). Worried about people helping you? You’re probably spoiled for choice; you’ve got young and enthusiastic people who don’t want to do their essays and who are just as excited about having fun as you. As for wanting to do it, you’ve got momentum on your side. If the college society needs to put on a convention to guarantee future funding, then it will happen by hook or by crook. All you have to do is get the ball rolling!
Anyway, this time it feels like we’re starting afresh, none of us really know what will happen. With four Pressgangers, two ex-con directors and a lot of enthusiasm and support we’re hoping the Irish Masters will be a great success, but until after it happens there’s the fear of the unknown to contend with. It’s great to be in at the beginning though, the decisions we make now will affect every Irish Masters for years to come. It’s exhilarating, and it reminds me why I’ll continue to be suckered into helping with conventions year after year!
Next time I’ll talk about the key ingredients for a successful gaming convention. Have a great weekend!