The ideal gaming con II: Organizing games

How to actually form games, schedule them, publicize them, registered for them, and (when necessary) cancel or communicate further about them is a huge problem for a gaming con — probably the single biggest one.

When do games run?

One thing I don’t like about Con of the North is that events run until exactly the top of the hour, and start at exactly the top of the hour. That means that, if a game actually runs the full length of the session, players will either end up late to their next game, or have to have a blank block of time. If a game runs late (which, realistically, just sometimes happens), or if people just want to take a bathroom break or get something to eat between sessions, players can end up late to their next game. This means that exposition/character development/other beginning-of-the-game stuff also runs late, and the game may end up running later, and the cycle continues.

It would be nice if there was a way to have games end with a half-hour or fifteen minutes between one block and the next. But that’s difficult to do, because when you have some games that run an hour, others than run eight hours, and others that run everything in between. Games also run less than or over their slots. I guess if it’s just accepted that games will have to end 15/30/whatever minutes early, it could work, but it would feel like the reduction in gaming time for shorter games wouldn’t be proportional. I assume that the Con of the North people have thought about this problem and decided that having the blocks run until and from the top of the hour is the only way that works. At a small con, it’s possible to just, for example, set a morning slot and an afternoon slot each day and then leave plenty of time between them. But once you have a bunch of games, it gets harder to schedule them without conflicts.

What better methods are out there? I haven’t encountered any. What do you think?

When to hold the con?

Another kind of schedule conflict that is pretty basic, but still worth mentioning, is: trying to avoid conflicts with other cons and fannish activities. In the Twin Cities, that can be pretty difficult; there’s something going on almost every weekend. Here, though, it might be easier. Of course, avoiding conflicts requires knowing in advance what else is going on. And sometimes, WizardCon decides at the last minute that your weekend is a great time to hold one of their events, or whatever. Conflict isn’t perfectly avoidable at the best of times, but it’s good to minimize when you can.

Starting, getting into and leaving games

One continuing problem for gaming cons is event registration systems. You’ve probably heard the tales:

  • Running around a massive convention center or clicking madly on a website to register for a game you’ve been looking forward to for months, only to not get in.
  • Finding out that you got into none of the games you were hoping for in a given block.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for even more months, only to get to the con and discover that the game has been canceled.
  • Registering for a game and then looking forward to it for months, only to get to the actual game location and time before discovering that it’s been canceled — and now all the other games you would’ve gone to in that slot are full.
  • Showing up for your favorite game and discovering that your least favorite player is in it.
  • Finding out that your two favorite games are running opposite each other.
  • Finding out that no one has registered for the game you spent months preparing for, or that all the player slots were taken but no one actually shows up.
  • Not understanding that you need to be au courant with the latest edition, or that the game is going to have themes you’re uncomfortable with.

There are a million ways the registration process can go wrong.

Having run programming for a science fiction convention (though not a dedicated gaming convention), I have a lot of sympathy for the difficulties of creating a good game registration system. The whole process is something that, I’m sure, the Con of the North people have dealt with a lot. Their system uses physical, paper tickets for games. They’re graded into something like ‘primary’, ‘alternate’ and ‘probably-not’ classes. Each ticket has the name of the event, the location and time, the number of player slots, and various other information. In your registration packet, you get a letter-size print-off of whatever you sent in for your event preferences, and stapled to it is your own little pile of event tickets.

At the Con of the North registration desk, they have these pretty amazing peg-boards on which all the tickets for all the events hang during the con; at-con event registration consists of asking the folks for a given ticket, which they then find within its time-slot and either give you a ticket or tell you ‘sorry, all the tickets for that event are gone’. Importantly, the ticketing doesn’t cost anything extra, either before the con or at the con (except maybe for some of the minis events, I think). All games are included in the membership cost.

Really, it’s a pretty ingenious system, and it works amazing well, all considered. And really, given some of the horror stories I’ve heard about GenCon and other cons, CotN’s system works quite well.

But it does have its drawbacks. For one thing, if people have registered for a game but decide — early on, or at the last moment — that they don’t want to actually attend, there isn’t a lot of incentive to return their tickets to the registration desk. This means that other people who are interested in the game can’t officially get in; they might not even think to, or bother to, show up to the game and see if it really is full up. CotN has been encouraging people to return tickets for events they aren’t actually going to use, but not enough people bother. Having no breaks between schedule blocks also discourages returning tickets.

Bulletin board at Con of the North 2016Related to this, GMs and hosts don’t get clear information about registration for games they’re running. By default, no information is given about how many people have registered for games you’re going to run. That means that the game you spent months preparing for might end up with no players; this is a perverse incentive, because it has the effect of encouraging low prep and even sloppy GMing. (“Why should I bother to prep, since I don’t even know if the game is going to actually happen?”) CotN of course does state that GMs should prepare adequately for games they’re going to run, and I think even has an official complaint channel for players who discover that a GM didn’t do enough prep. But still, the lack of feedback about how many players have registered makes lower prep tempting. If you go to the registration board, you can ask them how many tickets have been pulled for a given event; but even knowing that doesn’t tell you how many people will actually show up (see the problems about not returning tickets for games you’re not actually going to), or which people. (And sometimes it can be good to know if everyone who has registered for your game is, say, already familiar with the system, or 18+, or whatever.) There is a moderately strong perverse incentive to register for a bunch of things simultaneously (such as registering for a two-hour game that overlaps with a four-hour game, just in case one or the other doesn’t pan out), which means GMs get false positives for interest levels.

Another related problem is that it’s hard to get information out about canceled games. If you wake up Sunday morning and discover that you have a horrible case of con crud and shouldn’t go to the Con, but you’re scheduled to run four games that day that are all fully registered, what should you do? And if you cancel, do you call the CotN people? At best, they might let the folks at the registration board know and add your game to the list of canceled games on the bulletin board; but not everyone checks those sources (and with zero break time between slots, they often don’t have time to). So it’s entirely possible for a full slate of players to show up to a game that has actually been canceled. This adds another layer to the perverse incentives to register for more than one game in a given slot, which results in something of a vicious circle.

Another big problem is that the paper ticket system doesn’t really allow for pick-up games. If, at Con of the North or any other con I’ve been to, you decide at midnight that you’d like to play a game of Zar or Moneyduck or Advanced Civilization or whatever, the only way to get it together is to run around and find people you know and try to cajole them into committing. In my experience, this often results in basically playing the same games as usual with the same people as usual. Often quite fun, but I also go to gaming cons to play games that I don’t usually get to play. And sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to feel like playing at the con several months in advance.

Cell phones make this whole process slightly easier — texting to the rescue — but it still means furious communicating back and forth, and not everyone has a cell phone, and sometimes connections get missed, or whatever. Cell phones make it easier, but not easy. CotN has some large standing whiteboards, on which people write impromptu games they’re running; but from what I’ve seen, this is not very systematized, and doesn’t work very well. Trying to get pick-up games started at most cons is an annoying process at best.


So, okay, the paper ticket system has problems. It’s got strong points, but are there better alternatives?

Specifically for pick-up games, I’ve long thought that there should be a portable system by which players can signal to other players that they’d like to join a particular game. Some kind of flag that players can set up to let others know that they have a space open, and some kind of flag that players can display to let others know that they’re interested in a given game. (Kind of a hankie system for games, I guess; but I won’t go further into that.)

I recently heard that some cons have implemented this, in a way. Rather than flags, they use balloons: if a table has a balloon floating above it, that group is looking for additional players. Maybe even multiple balloons for multiple players. I can’t imagine there are enough kinds of balloons to allow designating what system the table is playing — even if it’s a giant-size game of Catan, it may not be obvious what system the group is playing if you’re seeing the balloon(s) from across a crowded gaming hall. And while I suppose it might be possible to make a Blade & Crown balloon animal, it’s going to be hard to get across something like “GURPS 3rd edition” in that medium. So I think balloons are a great idea, and pretty easy to implement; but they still leave some problems unresolved.

I think what I’ve seen at Convergence in recent years might be a good alternative to work toward. They use Sched, which is a for-profit event planning software package. There are tons of other kinds of convention planning software out there, too, some open source and free of charge. Minicon has recently started using ProgDB for programming (brainstorming, schedule, etc.), and we used the Mnstf wiki for the same functions earlier. (I wouldn’t recommend Mediawiki for actual registration — I don’t even see how it could work — but it works great for keeping track of a long list of discrete data, such as a selection of programming items for an SF con or a listing of games for a gaming con.)

The Convergence system is pretty well integrated with smartphones. That means that — if you have a working smartphone with a working data connection — you can register for games on the fly. Heck, you can probably start games on the fly. It’s certainly easier to imagine success getting together that midnight game of El Grande or Risus via a registration website than via a physical bulletin board located in just one spot. And, from what I understand, with these kinds of computerized registration systems, you can quickly find out how many people are registered for a given game, and even find specific information about them. (“Available from 1am to 6am, really want to play an Ao-Ryuu game, but really, any Ryuutama is okay”). I think people can even leave private messages to explain why they’ve registered for a game, or left, or inquire about specifics.

The assumption that everyone has a cellphone that can interact with a registration system is of course problematic — for starters, not everyone can afford a smartphone. The assumption that everyone’s cellphone can currently interact with it is even more precarious (batteries fail, and so do websites). But maybe it’s getting to the point where computer access is widespread enough that the convenience of using an online registration system outweighs its inconveniences. Not having to run back and forth from a central registration site may make the con more accessible, for example.

I don’t know if computerized registration systems allow it, but clearly, it should be possible for them to allow freeform game descriptions. Not just what the content of the scenario will be — stuff like trigger warnings, system descriptions (“We will be using Blade & Crown with the optional healing rules” or “A homebrew I’ve been playtesting for a few years that uses Fate mechanics for aspects added to basic 4th edition GURPS Traveller for skills and equipment, with original Newtonian space combat rules” or whatever), specific parts of the social contract (“will use X-cards”, “must be comfortable with Monty Python jokes”), level of maturity required, etc. could all be given much fuller treatment if the games don’t have to fit within a tight character limit.

Of course, this could be abused, and excessive verbosity can be a problem in game descriptions as bad as excessive brevity. And it could be problematic if there’s no ongoing editing to check for unclear descriptions, incorrect locations, etc. It’s good to have some things standardized, when possible. But allowing for more freeform descriptions of games would overall be a good thing, I think.

Whatever system a con uses to organize games, it’s pretty clear that there are always going to be trade-offs. And for a con that’s just getting started, I bet that investing in some plywood and pegs and the time to put them together, and maybe buying some balloons, would be a lot more affordable than finding, installing and implementing a well-designed computerized registration system. Still, it’s good to be aware of what’s out there. It’s good to think of the con’s goals and how best to attain them within the resources at hand.


The ideal gaming con II: Organizing games — 1 Comment

  1. Really great post!!! I hope that lots of convention organizers read this!

    Speaking as a GM / referee, I wound up after Gary Con in 2015 doing an ‘events menu’ which gave con runners a list of games that I supported and was willing to run for them, and let them pick what they wanted to see at their event. This seems to work well for them, as it gives them a ‘plug-in module’ for their event. It’s very useful for me, given my gaming presentation styles.

    Great posts in this series, and I wish that some of the people I deal with in gaming would read them!!! :)

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