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.

Watch a Hobby Eat Its Own Tail

At DASTOW we’re expanding our 5E content. It’s a good system and one we have lots of familiarity with. One promise, though: I want no part of the nostalgia parade.

Look at the existing 5E products, and you’ll see a lot of work inspired by the great adventures of yesteryear. Look at all the remakes, “spiritual successors,” and straight-up reprints. The dream of the ’80s is alive in Renton, Washington.

I have close friends who wrote a lot of the content in Tales from the Yawning Portal, but just seeing it fills me with sorrow. This could have been something new, but it’s a “greatest hits” album with 5E stats. At least they had the honesty to put “yawning” right there in the title, eh?

Imagine if they’d put the effort into something new. I am aware that WotC is a business, and their greatest hits compilation is going to outsell a new album. But that’s true only in the short term. What do you do in ten years? Do a remake of your remakes? Nostalgia is not a check you can just keep cashing.

The tail-eating isn’t just a WotC thing by any stretch; it’s just that they have one of the longest tails in tabletop. Tails are at the top of the menu in the video game world. A few years ago, I went to E3, North America’s biggest trade show for video games. As I stood at the entrance, I saw a dozen banners draped over the arena and the surrounding buildings—each banner at least five stories tall.

Every single video game mentioned had a number at the end: Far Cry 3, Borderlands 2, Assassins Creed III, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halo 4, Resident Evil 6…you get the idea. Imagine what those studios could have accomplished with those teams working on new worlds and experiences instead?

Again, they’re businesses—I get that. But it’s short-term thinking. All those billion-dollar franchises started as one-offs, and if you never start anything new, you’ll never get to the point where you’re contemplating the lucrative sequel.

In our own tiny way at DASTOW, we’re going to deliver new experiences. Maybe someday they’ll be part of someone’s nostalgia kick, but honestly I couldn’t care less about that right now.

New stuff, as fast as we can dream it up. ’Cause that’s a more satisfying meal than a tail could ever be.

Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate

This week Wizards of the Coast announced Betrayal at Baldur’s Gate, a D&D-themed version of their acclaimed Betrayal at House on the Hill board game. My first thought: “Great ideas win out—even if it takes a while.”

“A while” being “fifteen years, give or take” in this case.

When I first saw the game that would become Betrayal at House on the Hill, it was one of the last Milwaukee Gencons, 2001 or 2002. I was a D&D designer for WotC, so I spent most of my Gencon time speaking on panels or running the Delve (a continuous four-day pickup game) inside the WotC castle in the exhibit hall. Nice work if you can get it, eh?

I was hanging around the castle after a shift DMing the Delve when the head of RPG R&D at the time, Bill Slavicsek, grabbed me. “Follow me—we need a fourth player for a game we’re trying.” With me in tow, Bill scurried over to the open board game area, where we met two designers in Hasbro’s board game operation: Rob Daviau (who later went on to pretty much invent legacy board games) and Mike Gray (who’s been key to more Hasbro games than I can list).

“It’s a haunted house game,” Rob explained. “Here, pick a character.”

What I played over the course of the next hour or so was a 80% complete version of what later became Betrayal at House on the Hill. The characters were horror-movie archetypes (cheerleader, professor, and so on), the stats were tracked with paperclips on cardstock, and the room tiles even had decent graphics. The traitor mechanic was there, though the supply of plots was much thinner.

After a brief explainer from Mike and Rob, we were able to hit the ground running—and it was fun! When it was all over, Mike explained that while Hasbro’s board game group liked the design, they weren’t going to be able to do anything with it. (I can only imagine the business and logistical concerns for an operation of Hasbro’s scale.) WotC had a separate line of board games, though, and they weren’t beholden to the same set of concerns.

“I think you guys could take the game if you want it,” Mike said. Then Rob piped up. “It doesn’t have to be a haunted house, you know. Look at the tiles and the monster tokens and the items. This could be a dungeon…”

One thing led to another, and the game did wind up on the WotC side of the fence, where Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff, Bill McQuillan and a bunch of other people whose names I’m cruelly forgetting turned it into Betrayal at House on the Hill a couple years later.

Rob’s “it doesn’t have to be a haunted house” observation sat latent for years, but now that game’s structure will support a new theme, some 15 years after that Gencon afternoon in the board game hall. Rob gets his wish, and the haunted house becomes a dungeon.

It was a good idea then, and it’s a good idea now. Board game production requires a surplus of patience, whether you’re a huge corporation or an adorable indie. For all my fellow designers who’ve touched the various incarnations of this game over the years, I think 15 years of patience will pay off this October.

Why the Hell Do We Roleplay?

Polyhedral DiceBy almost any measure, it’s a golden age for gaming. We’ve got access to more games, more places to talk about them, more people to play them with, and greater cultural appreciation for them than ever before.

On any given evening, you could play a tabletop RPG…or the latest great video game. Or a fantastic board game. Or a minis game. Or a card game. And I suppose you could, theoretically speaking, engage in some sort of non-game activity like books, movies, TV, or making nachos.

Those choices all offer the possibility of a sublime experience (especially the nachos). So why do we pick RPGs? The reasons are as varied as the players, I suppose.

Some of us play for the game itself. We think that an RPG is “winnable” at least on some level. We’re the powergamers and the min-maxers, but those terms have a lot of baggage attached to them. At a lot of tables, min-maxing is no crime…or at least it’s a victimless crime. Still, if that’s the motivation, why not delve into a video game RPG, where there’s generally a more complex system to master and you never have to worry about finding other players?

Some of us play for the camaraderie/fellowship. We play because people we really dig play, and a great RPG session is really a rollicking, hours-long conversation among friends. But if that’s the motivation, who not delve into a really great board game, where you have just as much camaraderie, but less rules cruft and fewer scheduling difficulties?

Some of us play to immerse ourselves in a role—an idealized version of ourselves, very much the opposite, or someone else entirely. We can attempt anything we can conceive of, and the fictional game situation lets us tap some very real emotions. Sure, the drama kings and queens are among us are in this category, but so are the intentional shit-stirrers who are always picking pockets and starting tavern brawls. There’s a certain sort of glee in vicarious bad behavior that I wouldn’t want to deny anybody.

Here’s the thing about this third group: Tabletop RPGs serve them in a way that other games don’t. They can’t switch over to Mass Witcher Creed and scratch the same itch, and they can’t become the meeple in the same way that they become their PC.

I’m not saying that this sort of role-immersion player is the best sort of RPGer, or that they’re playing games the “right way” while others are having wrongbadfun. But I will say this: For that sort of player, the tabletop RPG experience is more precious—and probably more fragile. They’re getting something out of Thursday night D&D that they can’t get anywhere else. (Well, nowhere short of actual theater, anyway.)

So take care of those folks at your table! Even if you’re playing with friends, you might not realize how much Darryl needs to just evaporate into his role. Darryl might be going through a lot under the surface. Darryl might find a bit of himself while he’s pretending to be “Chala of the Trackless Wastes.” And that’s something Darryl can do only at the RPG table.

Take care of Darryl, or he’ll be forced to seek out community theater. You’ll never see him again.