The Tabletop Convention Survival Guide (or, Geeking Out for the Anxious)

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If hell is other people, welcome to Satancon 2019

I’ve hit up a few wargaming conventions, board game conventions and comics conventions over the years.  When I first started going, they were furtive affairs, promoted under plain covers, if at all.  It was all word of mouth and there could, literally, be a wargames convention going on in the house next door without you ever knowing about it if you didn’t hang with the right crowd.

These days, you could almost not go a weekend without having a convention to go to if you were prepared to put the miles in.  If you were OK crossing international boards then I’m pretty sure you really could go to a convention a week.  Sometimes two.  And, as a result, competition is fierce, promotion is relentless, and attendance is going up.  Whether attendance is growing because tabletop gaming is going mainstream, or whether it’s going mainstream because conventions are being more up front about their existence is hard to say, and it’s not this article’s place to decide either way.

Rather, I am here with a reassuring pat on the shoulder and some friendly advice on how to get the most out of any convention when you have anxiety, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, depression, OCD or some other condition or affliction that makes the idea of attending these events such a dichotomy.

On the one hand: GAMES!  Fellow geeks!  Cool swag!  GAMES!  Cosplay!  GAMES!

Not just cool games, but cool hats! Shut up, tricornes are cool!

On the other hand: strange smells, people I don’t know, impossible decisions, weird light, stranger smells, being jostled, being ripped off, being judged…

Believe me, I have been there my friends.  I’ve been through the hell.  I have made the mistakes.  I have made good decisions and bad decisions and I have learned that there is a right way to do conventions.

The advice that follows is aimed at those who, like me, struggle at events like these.  But even if you don’t, you might find that it will help you minimize the stressors and maximize the fun, and that’s good news for everyone!

  • Plan an overnight stay and book well in advance.

When I recently dashed up to the UK Games Expo, I literally didn’t know I was definitely attending until a couple of days before I went.  If you are going to any convention that involves public transport outside your hometown, or a drive of more than about half an hour, you can and should book a hotel room.  And if the event is more than one day, this advice goes double.

If cost is an issue, the further ahead you book, the less you are likely to have to pay, and most good venues are within a gentle walk of a Premier Inn or Travelodge.  If the event isn’t near a budget hotel, or funds are really tight, check out Airbnb.  I found a really lovely room to stay in for PAW2019 in Plymouth, a five-minute drive from the venue as less than £30/night and it was money well spent.

This also serves to filter out events if you’re struggling to decide about going to an event or not.  If you can’t find a room at a price you can afford, don’t go to that event and move on to the next one.

Unless you are a 100% extrovert, avoid friendly offers from fellow geeks unless (a) they really mean a spare room, not a sofa; and (b) you really know them and their families really well.  If any level of awkwardness causes you stress, you will suffer more stress from such offers than you will save in getting a good night’s sleep.  Which you won’t.

  • Have a schedule.

Whether you’re there for just one day or for a whole weekend, make a plan – the more detailed, the better.  You can always change it if something comes up.  At this year’s UKGE, with no plan and no schedule except one vague plan to meet up with some people I slightly knew, the day was spent in idle wandering that just left me feeling aimless, confused and pointless.  The sense that everyone around you is engaged in purposeful activity will leave you disconnected and unfulfilled.  There will be masses going on at any convention you care to name, and if you plan well in advance, you’ll have access to events and seminars as they are posted and be the first to be able to book your place to see them.  Even if it’s a smaller, local event, take a good look at the demo and participation games that are advertised and work out which ones you really want to try out.

If an event or activity turns out to be underwhelming, make your excuses and get out of there.  If you’re not having fun, you’re wasting a space that could be filled by someone it would suit better.  The exception to this is RPGs.  Game masters put in a lot of time to prep these, so you should make every effort to see them to the end.  All the same, if something isn’t working for you, ask to take the GM aside for a minute and say so.  Either he or she can change things, or they can arrange an easy out for you by killing off or otherwise easing your character out of the story.

  • Set a budget.  Go large.

Spending money at events is one of the great pleasures to be taken from it.  Getting home and laying out your awesome swag for the family to admire (or roll their eyes at) is a special pleasure.  At any event, you will see a lot of things you want to buy.  But if you have no shopping list and no clear budget, this is the absolute acme of analysis paralysis and you will end up buying nothing if you don’t leave yourself plenty of room to buy many things.  And you should seriously buy many things, not least because you’ve paid for your ticket, the travel, a hotel room and the parking, so for heaven’s sake make the most of the fact that you don’t have to pay postage on this stuff!

Do not under any circumstances, exceed your budget.  Even if you can only have a small budget, use it carefully and then move on to point 5 (below).

  • Have a spending plan.

In addition to having a schedule, have a spending plan.  I would suggest that about 50% of your budget should be planned spending: buying stuff you are explicitly going to the event to buy.  The other 50% should be for spontaneous purchases of things you didn’t know existed (there are lots of these).

Swaaaaaaaag!!!

If you have specific things you want to buy, there are two ways to approach it.  You can contact a suitable retailer or manufacturer who’s on the traders list and specifically ask them to stock and reserve that item for you, then go to their stand and buy it.  This is efficient and stress-free, but not much fun.  Alternatively, you can make a list of who might have it at the show, then go to all those sellers until you find the one selling it for the cheapest.  It helps you to get a good deal and is a good excuse to hit up several stands with purpose and intent, which keeps the stress down.  And if no one is stocking it?  Well, either you can get online and buy it anyway, or you can shrug and shift the money you didn’t spend into the “unplanned purchases” budget.

Unplanned purchases are the most fun, but potentially also the most stressful.  You see a cool thing.  Do you buy it?  What if you see an even cooler thing just around the corner?

Do a full circuit of the hall or halls while you do your planned spending, and have a notebook and pen handy – or use the camera on your smartphone.  Make a note of everything that clears your “threshold of awesome” and, once you’ve finished your planned spending, review and prioritise your list and go buy it, in descending order of awesomeness.

This, by the way, is another great reason to have a hotel room nearby.  Being able to fill up a bag and take your ill-gotten gains back to the hotel room, drop them off and head back for more is a great feeling and the fresh air will do you good!

  • Play many games.

Buying stuff is great but, let’s be honest, you can buy stuff any day of the week and it pretty much feels just as awesome.  The most fun to be had at a tabletop convention – and even at many comic conventions, these days – is in playing games.  The highlight of UKGE19 for me were the many games I got to try out or play all the way through: engaging with a manageable handful of people – universally friendly and welcoming – and focusing on the rules and the fun.  I got to participate in Carnivale (looks great!), Wild West Exodus (better than I expected), Ominoes (on my “to buy” list), Cash & Guns (a brilliant family game if you can get over the whole “shooting each other” thing) and Peak Oil (bought – review incoming!).  Playing lots of games is the best way to get your money’s worth out of the whole event, because it’s maximum fun and minimum expenditure (even if it will make you want to spend lots of money).

  • Go with friendsMeet often.

Even if you stick rigidly to the points above, an event can still get lonely – especially if it lasts more than a day.  So if you’ve got friends that are going, make specific plans to meet at specific places – perhaps to play a game or get some lunch – several times during the day.  It will help to provide a framework to your day, and give you a touchstone of comfort.  An event is also a great time to meet people you might only know online.  It’s a public safe space and, if they do turn out to be even weirder than you, there a ready-made crowd into which you can quickly disappear.

At the end of the day…

The horror… The horror…

Tabletop conventions – and all geek conventions – are fun.  But they are also exhausting: physically, mentally and even emotionally.  Taking the time to plan your visit and to follow a few steps to making sure you have escape space and the opportunity to unwind will help make sure that what can be a scary and overwhelming experience – especially the larger events, like Salute and UKGE – is instead a rewarding day.

But one final piece of advice: after you’ve done a few conventions, using my advice to help you, a voice in your head may tell you that you’re a veteran, now, and that you don’t need rules anymore.  Do not listen to the voice.  It is wrong.  I was wrong.

And that’s why I wrote this article.

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