Con Artist – D&D at the UK Games Expo

For three days in early June the Birmingham NEC played host to the 2016 UK Games Expo. A vast hall was packed to the gills with people chattering about dice, hex-grids and action points, while the nearby Hilton Hotel teemed with tables dedicated to gaming of all sorts.

While the majority of activity was dedicated to more traditional boardgames, if there’s one universal truth of gaming it’s that when enough nerds congregate in a single place it’s only a matter of time until someone breaks out the polyhedral dice and starts a session of D&D. The UKGE was no exception to this, and over the course of the weekend dozens and dozens of games were played.

Out of the Ordinary

You might be surprised to hear that this was actually the first convention we’d been to, and it was fascinating to see the difference between even store games and those played at a con.

For one thing, the logistics are a nightmare. Various RPGs were being played in several rooms scattered across the hotel and actually coordinating who had to be where and when they had to be there was a tall order. The excellent volunteers were great at sorting out the inevitable snafus, but getting everyone in place and set up was much more trying than expected.

The one-shot nature of things also led an interesting, almost whimsical air to things. Though plenty of folk were using official Adventurers’ League characters, most were using either pre-gens or completely disposable ones they rolled up to have some fun with.

As there is no fear of ruining things in the long-term, it seemed that players we talked to were willing to take much bigger risks and chances than they would if there was a chance they’d be picking the character up next week.

Organised Play

We don’t have all that much experience of organised play sessions, either through Paizo’s Pathfinder Society or Wizards’ Adventurers’ League, but both seem to work incredibly well in convention situations.

The highlight of the Saturday evening (beyond our own session, naturally) was ‘Reclamation of Phlan’ – a huge multi-table adventure based around dozens of heroes working together to defeat a powerful green dragon.

This was the European premier of the epic adventure, While we didn’t get to see any of this or take part ourselves, by all reports the sessions went well. All ten tables came together to rid the town of the scaly menace, playing long into the night to achieve their goal!

There are few other circumstances when a group can be sure of getting multiple parties and willing DMs in a single location, so conventions make for great settings for epics like this. If you’re looking for a unique gaming experience, this sort of thing is all but impossible to arrange outside of a convention environment.

Playing and Running

With new material in the works, we thought that this would be an incredible venue to try out some new adventures on the public and volunteered to run three sessions on the Saturday – easily the busiest day of the weekend.

Each of the six-player games completely sold out in advance, and we were a little nervous going into it. Every DM gets nervous before a session, but this only gets worse when you don’t know who you’re running the game for, how many of them will turn up or how experienced they are with D&D or even RPGs in general.

The nerves only got worse when, ten minutes after the first session of the day was meant to start, only three players had actually turned up. Refugees from the table next to us, who had their DM struck down with illness, bumped the party up to five.

Soon, however, the five turned into eight, when the trio who had failed to show up finally managed to sort out the chaos that was ticketing and appeared by the roadside, joining the main party as they set out to track down a distressed widow’s missing son.

To be honest, DMing for eight people can be tricky at the best of times, and when those people are spread out over two tables in a noisy room and have never played together before… well, things could have gone pretty badly.

And here we really need to appreciate one of the best things about playing RPGs – the people.  Even with nerdy hobbies like D&D earning greater and greater appreciation among the general public, it’s still a joy to set up in an environment where people can truly be their geeky selves.

The entire group really stepped up to the challenge and turned what might have been a bit of a train wreck into one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had when running an RPG. Between them, our eight players managed to pull off some excellent teamwork and give each other time to work things out.

After the rocky start, the rest of the day went off without a hitch. All in all we ran twelve hours of adventure and had an absolute blast doing it, despite having to spend the entire evening in a blisteringly hot conference room.

A Learning Experience

If you get a chance to play an RPG at an easily accessibly convention, you owe it to yourself to at least give it a shot.  If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity to sit down with some like-minded people and share your hobby.

Likewise, if you regularly DM we wholeheartedly recommend running a convention game if you get the chance. Most shows will offer some sort of compensation, either in the form of swag or a free ticket, and you get to experience the frenetic, nerve-wracking joys of organising the imaginations of complete strangers!

Tips for Players:

  • Have an open mind when it comes to picking games. If you’ve always been interested in a system but don’t know anyone who runs it, conventions are an excellent resource for getting a taster.
  • Bring pens, paper and dice. Most DMs will have plenty of spares, but if they don’t things can get messy.
  • Respect your fellow players’ experience with the system… or lack thereof. Plenty of people use cons as a way to try out a game or drag a friend or loved one along to a session. You may well end up playing with complete beginners, so try to help them along and accept that they might slow things down a little.

Tips for DMs:

  • Be on time. It’s unfortunate when players are a bit late to a session, but when you’re the DM punctuality is even more important. Even the most organised of us requires time to set out books, arrange dice and remember when the hell we’re running, so make sure to get there a little early!
  • Playtest wherever possible. People have usually paid for the game and are looking for an exceptional experience, so when possible try and play through the scenario before you get there.
  • Make an ending! Even if you’re only halfway through the written adventure, try and come up with a satisfying ending.  You won’t get to finish the scenario next week, so just find a way to draw a bit of a line under things.
  • Most importantly, make sure you have enough to drink. Several hours of talking, combined with the hot, airless conditions of most conference rooms means that you need to keep well-hydrated, especially as it’s often hard to just nip out to grab a glass of water. We managed to get through two big bottles of water throughout the 12 hours of DMing at the UKGE, supplemented by a couple of extremely welcome beers later on in the evening.

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