Gencon Survival Tips

Photo credit: Gencon LLC

I’ve been going to Gencon regularly since 2001 or so, with a few skipped years here and there. That makes a veteran, though I’m still a piker compared to some friends who’ve gone to more than 30 Gencons in a row.

This year Gencon hits the big Five-Oh, and judging from badge sales, it’s going to be the biggest ever. If you’re going, get your Maslow on and make sure you’re taking care of your hierarchy of needs.


We West Coasters fly to Gencon, but the vast majority of attendees drive there. In addition to being a terrific game designer, Kevin Kulp (PirateCat on EN World) has a fascinating day job: He’s a sleep and alertness expert who advises companies on shift scheduling and other sleep-related safety matters. Years ago, he started this thread to help sleep-deprived drivers get to the show without crashing, and I consult it every year before I go.

The overt focus is getting to Gencon safely, but it also answers the question you’ll be asking yourself by midday Thursday: “How little sleep can I get away with?” The whole post is worth a read, but the short answers are:

  • Five hours a night is a lot better than four.
  • Nap in 90-minute blocks if you can, and avoid one-hour naps.
  • “The least amount of sleep with close-to-normal functioning? Two 2-hour naps per day, spaced 12 hours apart. You’ll be tired, but it can keep you going efficiently for quite some time; it’s what we recommend to emergency workers.”

Seriously, though, read the thread. Pay attention in particular to the “drunk vs. tired” comparisons. I’ll bet Kevin’s thread has literally saved lives.


If you don’t have good, comfortable shoes for Gencon, buy new ones now (mid-July as we publish this). That way they’ll be broken in before you get to Indy. Gencon might seem like a “sit there and game all day” event, but there’s a ton of walking and standing involved. You don’t want every step to feel like Grimtooth’s Chamber of Caltrops.

Food and Drink

Indy’s food is great—assuming you’re a carnivore. It’s not exactly cheap, but honestly everyone’s restaurant tab would be higher if the show were in Chicago—or even Seattle for that matter. I treat myself every year to a big ol’ steak and a shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo Steak House…and with their cocktail sauce, it’s often September before my nose-hairs grow back. Strong stuff!

For lunches, take advantage of weird gamer scheduling and hit the food trucks outside the convention center in late morning or early afternoon. Game through the lunch rush and hit ‘em when the lines are short.

While you’re gaming, have protein/energy bars stashed away in your backpack. Your brain will thank you. And drink water, even if you aren’t thirsty. Even if you’re having beers later. Even if you just had beers. YOU NEED WATER TO GAME. (And technically also to live.)


Speaking of drinking water…If you’re roleplaying, you need to talk to play. Over the course of four days at Gencon, you’ll probably talk more than you do in a week or two of normal life. Your vocal cords will notice! Baby them. That means avoiding smoke, resisting the urge to yell, and saving that gravelly orc barbarian voice for Sunday’s game.

If you’re worried about losing your voice, there are some preventive things you can do:

  • Drink water. Seriously, just do it. There are bubbler fountains all over the place in the hall.
  • Avoid acidic and spicy food. Fewer mimosas, and ease up on the salsa.
  • Don’t yell, obviously, but also try not to whisper. It’s low volume, but whispering is hard on the vocal cords.
  • Gargle salt water. Really.
  • Stay away from chocolate and booze…or so vocal coaches say, though we’re edging toward “cure is worse than the disease” territory.

Other Random Tips

The Dealer Hall: Don’t try to walk all the aisles in one fell swoop. I did the math last year, and even the optimal serpentine paths clocked in at 2.5 to 3 miles…and that’s just the main exhibit hall, not the ancillary retail space over by Lucas Oil Stadium. If you’re bound and determined to see everything, try to knock out a dozen aisles a day and you’ll be fine.

Open Gaming: I always see something amazing when I wander through the open gaming tables—either a board game I’ve never heard of, a particularly animated group of RPGers, or some weird custom-made miniatures game that spends the other 51 weeks of the year in someone’s basement.

Generic Tickets: These are your best friends. Especially on Saturday and Sunday, people aren’t always showing up for events. I almost always get a spot at the table if I show up a few minutes before an event, generic ticket in hand. Someone’s gonna no-show, and you’ll be in.

The Most Important Tip

Embrace the unknown! My schedule is often a shambles by Friday—and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve played amazing prototype games, had sublime RPG experiences in systems I’d never tried, and talked game design until the wee hours of the morning at Gencon, all because my schedule isn’t set in stone.

So demo something, even if it’s not your favorite sort of game or not in a genre you love. Take time away from the gaming table to see the costume parade, or watch people get married. Every single year, the best thing at Gencon is the thing that you didn’t know existed before you walked past it—and it’s the thing you’ll be talking about until next August rolls around.

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