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Surviving GEN CON '97

by Jordan H. Orzoff

[This is my annual survival guide for GEN CON, once more modified to take into account this year's program.]

Surviving GEN CON '97

[This lengthy message contains suggestions for surviving the GEN CON Game Fair, which is held every August in Milwaukee's MECCA convention center (currently being remodeled and renamed "Wisconsin Center", then to become the "Midwest Express Center"). I'm drawing on my past fifteen years of GEN CON experience for these suggestions, but I'm sure other people have their own experiences to share. Please jump right in with your suggestions or questions!]

"HOW DO I GET THERE?"

GEN CON used to send you a map of the area with road directions. Alas, no more. Basically, you take I-94 right into downtown Milwaukee, and get off at the Convention Center/Kilbourn Ave. exit. The Greyhound station is only a few blocks from GEN CON, if you're coming in cheaply. If you're flying in, you'll need to take a bus, a cab, or a rental car to get from Mitchell Field to downtown Milwaukee -- it's several miles away.

The hotels reserved by GEN CON fall into three distinct "rings". The inner ring hotels (Holiday Inn-City Centre, Hyatt, Milwaukee Hilton, Hotel Wisconsin, etc.) are within easy walking distance (2-3 blocks). The middle ring hotels (Astor, Park East, Pfister, Wyndham) are also within 10 blocks, although some people may not find that a comfortable walk, especially late at night. The outer ring hotels are miles away from downtown. These include the cheapest accommodations (such as the Sandburg Hall dorm). Last year, GEN CON offered a shuttle service to the outer ring hotels. It appears to have been discontinued, so this year you'll need a car to get back and forth.

Finally, you may be staying at one of the cheaper, very-outer-ring hotels not reserved by GEN CON or at a local campground. In that case, you'll definitely need to drive into downtown each day.

That brings us to parking. Downtown parking, like you'd expect, is not cheap. Most of the hotels have their own parking lots or ramps for their guests. The Hyatt does not provide free parking, but you get a discount. Check with your hotel before coming up, to see if free parking is provided. If your hotel isn't within walking distance, there are both municipal and private lots available nearby. The rates are about $10/day on Thursday and Friday, $2/day Saturday and Sunday. Last year's validated parking at the MacArthur lot seems to have been discontinued.

"WHAT SHOULD I WEAR?"

Milwaukee, like the rest of the Upper Midwest, has hot, muggy summers. It's a good idea to check the weather before you pack. Through Compuserve, you can GO WEATHER and ask for the extended forecast for Milwaukee. Through the World-Wide Web, you can also get weather forecasts through the National Weather Service's "interactive" weather-finder: http://iwin.nws.noaa.gov/iwin/main.html. If it's hot, you're going to want light summer clothing. MECCA is air-conditioned, but thirty thousand bodies in an enclosed space put a strain on the system (especially in the older Bruce Hall/Arena building, where role-playing and collectible card games are held). You'll also want comfortable walking shoes. MECCA is big and mostly uncarpeted. Expect to do a lot of walking, so your feet will thank you if you wear your sneakers. If it's going to be cooler, bring along some jeans and a sweatshirt or light jacket. The typical garb for a gamer seems to be a black t-shirt with some kind of pattern on it. Be unconventional and wear a blue t-shirt or a button-down shirt. A lot of people wear 'button-mail', encrusting their torsos with an impenetrable mass of circular plastic discs. Nobody stops to read them, so why bother? Whatever you choose to wear, keep a couple of things in mind:

1) You're going to want pockets. You have to juggle your hotel key, car keys, event tickets, program book, money, and so on.

2) You're going to need a place to pin your badge. The chainmail vest might not be the best idea.

If you're entering the costume contest or one of the costumed interactive events, bring your costume. Some people just like to wear costumes for the fun of it. That's fine, but remember the heat. Try to wear a costume that's light, comfortable, and has pockets. Also remember GEN CON's costume rules, which prohibit weapons (real or replica), military uniforms, and anything which isn't PG-rated.

If you're thinking of going out on the town one night or to a nice restaurant (such as John Hawks Pub, the site of the Official Compuserve RPGAMES Forum Dinner, Wednesday night!), bring along some flashy and/or elegant threads.

Finally, some kind of a pack or bag is almost indispensable, especially if you're a Judge. You can keep your convention materials, paper, dice, purchases, etc. in there. A backpack is good; a bookbag is ideal.

"WHAT ELSE SHOULD I BRING?"

1) Everything GEN CON sends you. Your program book (the only one you get). Your tickets. Your hotel confirmation. Your badge is now included with your envelope, as opposed to in the past where you only got the sticker and had to pick up the card and plastic holder at the convention. On the bottom left corner of your ticket sheet is a ticket which you have to exchange at GEN CON for your registration packet.

2) Dice. Only a few, depending on what games you expect to play. If you have a wheelbarrow full of the little polyhedral suckers, leave it at home.

3) Pencils, paper, etc. Take something to write on and something to write with. If nothing else, you'll want to write down addresses and phone numbers (or hotel room numbers ) of friends you make at GEN CON. You'll want to take notes (or make maps) during the games you play.

4) Game materials. Don't go overboard here. These usually aren't necessary, but you might be more comfortable having the rules for games you expect to play in. Or you might want something autographed by a designer or author who is going to be there. It's a good idea to pack a minimum of game manuals. They tend to be heavy and bulky. You can leave most of your games in your hotel room and just take along the ones you expect to need for the day. Travel light, that's my motto. (Note -- I wrote this part in the years before Magic. Expect to see people shlepping around big boxes of Magic cards. However, those boxes of cards are heavy and bulky. I suggest that, if you're planning to do sales or trades, that you leave the cards in your hotel room and bring along a *list* of your available cards and wants. In fact, copy the list and bring several. You can make deals and then bring the cards you've agreed to trade later on or the next day.)

5) A camera. You have all those immortal moments to record, right?

6) Money. Your hotel will take credit cards, as will some restaurants and dealers. For everything else, I recommend you load up on insured traveler's checks. With all the running around and crowds, it's not difficult to lose your wallet or bag, so carrying large sums of cash isn't a great idea. Personal checks may not be accepted if they're from out of state. How much to bring depends on you. Besides traveling expenses, you'll have to pay for your hotel room (and don't forget the hotel tax -- around 10%) and possibly parking. As for food, see below. There are also games to buy in the dealer's room, some of which will be on sale and some of which won't be released to the stores until later in the year. There's an auction where you can pick up used games cheap or collector's items not-so-cheap. There's the art show. And you might want to buy souvenirs in Milwaukee, though I can't imagine why. I typically spend about $300-400 on GEN CON, but then I'm a moderate spender in the dealer's room. I know people who can spend over $1500! You can get by for under $200, but it requires miserly budgeting.

7) Food. MECCA's new food service provides a greater variety of food (including Cajun rice & beans, brownies, and my favorite - soft pretzels. Nobody will miss the overpriced, unhealthy, and sometimes downright dangerous junk food from previous years. But, that doesn't mean the new stuff is any better or cheaper. We're talking an industrial food service, after all, not a four-star restaurant. MECCA prohibits bringing in outside food, but you can easily stash some in your bag and sneak it in.

Once you leave MECCA, you'll find the kind of food you'd expect in a business district, though you may have to do some walking. There are fast food places within a few blocks, and the Grand Avenue Mall has a food court. There are also some sit-down restaurants, though you probably won't have time for that. Two of the better (and faster) places in the vicinity are Major Goolsby's and the coffee shop at the Hyatt. Goolsby's is a bar and grill kitty-corner from the entrance to MECCA. Look for the marquee flashing "Welcome GEN CON". The Hyatt is the hotel connected to MECCA by skyway. The coffee shop is a bit pricy, but the breakfast and lunch choices are good for hotel coffee shop fare, and it's quiet enough to relax you after fighting the crowds and noise. If you're looking for somewhere nice to go at night, try the restaurant on top of the Hyatt. Be sure to dress up! Many people also recommend the Safe House, a theme bar and restaurant about six blocks from MECCA. The Safe House gets *very* crowded during GEN CON weekend, so don't go expecting a relaxed evening. Also, while the ambience is great, the food there is really terrible.

The biggest problem with eating at GEN CON is time. Games run from 8 AM to midnight each day, with only 15 minutes between games. You might want to rush over to a fast food place for carryout. Or you can bring food with you from home, which is the cheapest way to eat at GEN CON. Some hotels have rooms with refrigerators in them; in others, you can bring a cooler and keep it stocked with free ice. I usually pack along cans of pop and sandwich materials which I can munch on during or between games.

You might also want to bring a sports bottle, if you're the kind of person whose throat dries out quickly from talking or shouting. MECCA is loud! Drinking-fountain water isn't great, but it's free. If you're the kind of gamer who can't survive without munchies, pack some along. And be willing to share with your companions.

8) Necessities. You know -- toothbrush, shampoo, clean underwear, aspirin. I always recommend making a checklist of things to pack before you leave. That way, when you're rushing around at the last minute, you won't accidentally leave your contact lens cleaner at home. And ... a heartfelt appeal ... please, please, PLEASE use those necessities while at the CON. Even if you don't, at home.

9) *Smokers' Notice!* I'm not a smoker myself, but the smoke-free policy will affect a lot of you. Basically, you have to go outside in order to smoke. Where this presents a problem is that *getting* outside can often be a walk of ten minutes or so. And, I have yet to meet a smoker who can actually last through a four-hour game without a cigarette break. Unless you are really looking forward to missing large chunks of the games you register for, I suggest that this would be a very good time to investigate nicotine gum or patches. Hopefully, that will tide you over until the game ends and you can rush outside to pollute the air. ;)

"WHAT DO I DO ONCE I GET TO THE CON?"

GEN CON is huge -- it's easy to be overwhelmed by the choices available. Let's walk through a little tour of the place. Note that they change the set-up every year, so refer to your map and any information they give you on-site before trusting this walking guide.

I usually drive in Wednesday, the day before the con starts. Coming in on Wednesday is convenient -- you can get settled into your hotel and even pick up your registration materials before the crowds show up. Also, the COMPUSERVE ROLE-PLAYING GAMES FORUM DINNER is being held Wednesday night, at John Hawks Pub. If you're going to be in Milwaukee on Wednesday, ask me about the dinner. I'd be glad to sign you up!

If you're arriving Thursday morning, the first thing you'll want to do is to check into your hotel. Problem: most hotels have afternoon check-in times, sometimes as late as 3 PM (though a few hotels have been gracious enough to start check-in earlier to accommodate the crowd of gamers). Not to worry, though this is inconvenient. If you drove, you can still park your car at the hotel. It's a good idea to take your luggage out and ask the bellhop to hold on to it until check-in. The bellhop will have a room for just this purpose, and it's safer than leaving it in your car. If check-in is in the afternoon, make sure you get away from your gaming to take care of this small but important task.

MECCA itself occupies two full city blocks, an unmistakable structure. The main building has a first story of drab brick, topped with an overhanging structure of white stucco and polarized black glass. Skyways connect it to the Hyatt and the old Arena/Bruce Hall building, where most of the role-playing games are held. You'll need to go around to the front of MECCA (on Kilbourn Avenue), where a long row of glass doors greets you. Let yourself in and spend a minute just gaping at the crowds of gamers, costumed and otherwise. People are excited; the energy level of GEN CON is worth the trip alone. If you haven't picked up your registration packet already, you'll need to do that now. There are lines for people who want to register on site, lines for people who want to buy event tickets, lines for judges, and lines for people who have pre-registered. Unless you're a judge (in which case you get the short line), get in the pre-reg line and wait. They've improved the speed of service in recent years, but you still might stand in line for ten minutes. Talk to your neighbors. Make friends. Accept the free magazines and flyers being handed out. Stow them in your bag; there are many more freebies to come. Once you get to the head of the line, the person there will inspect your ticket sheet and tear off the lower-left corner. Now you get a thick envelope. Move aside and check to make sure you have a program book and a badge and badge-holder if, for some reason, you didn't receive those in the mail. There are other goodies in there, like glossy ads and a book of coupons for the dealer's room. Put on your badge and wear it proudly. You're going to need that badge to get into the exhibit hall and the gaming areas. MECCA maintains a staff of geriatric men in blue blazers who sit at the doors and inspect badges. Honest.

Let's take an overview of MECCA while you're still reeling from sensory overload. You're standing in the Great Hall, which runs the entire length of the building. Besides the lines for registration and tickets, there's also a bulletin board, an information counter, a booth for the Milwaukee Dept. of Tourism, escalators going up to the second floor, and doors to the exhibit area. AND, I should point out, the sign-up table for STAR TREK:
DEEP SPACE '97 and BABYLON LIVE, the interactive games put on by Compuserve's very own Dreamsmiths. Get your ticket at the events window, then proceed to our table to pick up your character. End of plug. The doors lead in to the exhibit hall (dealer's room). The east and west halls used to be gaming, but the dealer's room has taken over the entire building in recent years. And you'll soon see why. To the west are computer games and some other demos and activities, such as the Klingon Jail N' Bail. Assuming you have some free time before your first game, why not take a little tour?

Save the dealer's room for last. It's huge, and you'll want to linger. Walk into the West Hall and look around. Take a look at the Klingons, and watch people play Midi-Maze and Doom against each other. They might have some virtual reality-type games, too.

Let's go upstairs via the escalator. You should find the art show upstairs, an open gaming area where you can rent boardgames, and tables available for those who want to set up impromptu games of their own. There are also all of the war and miniature games. Stroll around, pausing to enjoy the painted miniatures and detailed landscapes. If you like anime, there's an area devoted to showing movies, but it's right in the center of traffic, so it won't be a very tranquil viewing experience. By all means, take some time to look at the art show. Much of what is on display is art from games, Dragon covers, etc. There are some very good pieces mixed in there. There used to be an art auction for the pieces on display, but I believe it has been discontinued. You still may be able to purchase pieces at the show, however.

One of my favorite secret places to hide and rest was the cocktail lounge which overlooks the exhibit hall. Alas, GEN CON has turned it into the "Visitors' Center", where you can get orientation sessions for the convention. This might be a worthwhile stop. It probably won't be crowded, so it might still be a good place to rest.

Now take the skyway to the arena building. There are two main areas in here, both of which look like arenas for gladiators! To your right, you'll find the Arena and RPGA HQ. Most RPGA games are held in booths in the Arena, and there are card games in the Arena Annex and Deep Labyrinth (aka the basement). You'll see rows of booths partitioned off by curtains, each occupied by a game. To your left from the skyway, you'll come to where most of the convention's role-playing games are held. On your left, as you pass through the doors, is Juneau Hall, home of some role-playing games. On your right is Kilbourn Hall, where the gaming auction takes place. There is an area where you can view and purchase some of the less valuable items. Expect a LOT of Magic cards to be featured, but there is often quite a bit of cool old stuff, as well.

Continuing past Juneau and Kilbourn, you'll come to Bruce Hall. This is the homes to role-playing games, tournaments, and our very own Dreamsmiths events! Walk around and peer in at the variety of games taking place. Feel free to eavesdrop or even pull up a chair. Lurking is encouraged at GEN CON. You'll see a stage at the front of Bruce Hall, with weird lights emitting from it. That's the headquarters for Deep Space '97. Drop by and say hello!

Head back up the skyway to the convention hall and turn left. You'll come to another skyway, which takes you to the second floor of the Hyatt. The various ballrooms and meeting rooms are now the home of seminars and some special interactive events. Most of the seminars are free, so you can pop into the back of the room and listen for a bit.

By now, you really need to rest your legs. May I suggest you take the Hyatt's escalator down to their coffee shop? It's a quiet place with comfortable chairs. You can order a drink, sit back, and take a look at the contents of your envelope. First, look at the program book. If you didn't receive one in the mail, it has everything you'll want to know about the convention. If you did get a program book, the envelope should contain updated information on events, guests of honor, and so on. You can find out about new games that might interest you or learn which events have been cancelled. If you have some free time, you might want to think about buying more event tickets. Pick up some generics instead if the size of the line frightens you. There's a bulletin board near the head of the line which indicates which events still have spaces open and any new events that are being offered. People will also be advertising for games that they wish to run in open gaming or posting messages for their friends.

The dealer's room is arguably the most entertaining place at GEN CON. You can easily spend hours just looking at all the booths, not to mention talking to designers and friends and playing demo games. Many booths will have freebies -- posters, catalogs, sample cards, buttons, previews of upcoming games. Fill your goodie bag. Participate in whatever silly contests Chaosium or SJG has to offer. Try out demos if they look interesting. Be impressed by the high-tech and industry-show style displays and exhibits. If you don't know where the Compuserve folks are meeting, drop by the Dreamsmiths table out in the Great Hall. We'll be manning the Deep Space '97/Babylon LIVE sign-up table there. One word of advice -- don't buy anything yet! In your envelope, you'll have coupons which give you $1 off purchases over $10, but you might be able to get a better price still. Every event (except for company-sponsored ones) gives away prize certificates worth $5 or $10 in the dealer's room to 'winning' players. If you play well, you might end up with a fistful of these certificates by the end of the con, allowing you to walk away with $30 or so worth of free merchandise!

That concludes the tour. Now, let's go to the auction. Items will be put up for bid by category -- such as SF games or back-issues of magazines. Once you find out when your category is being offered (the schedule is posted, and also in your program book), you know when to show up. You'll need to buy an auction card; the rules are explained in the program. You can also show up to look over what is available in the Auction Store and pay the asking price, if you don't have time to go to the auction.

OK ... you've seen the place, now you want to game. If you have an event ticket, simply go to where the game is. Be on time. If you have a generic ticket, show up a few minutes early. A generic ticket doesn't guarantee you a space, but if some players don't show up (which happens quite a lot, actually), it will probably be first-come first-served for the generics. Most role-playing games are in Bruce Hall, Juneau Hall, or the basement. RPGA events are in the Arena; you'll gather in a staging area and wait for them to split you into teams. Miniatures and wargames are on the second floor of the convention center. When you go to an event, the Judge will have a bit of paperwork to do, including collecting your tickets and asking you to check a sign-in sheet. To make the Judge's life easier, write your name and badge number on all of your tickets beforehand.

If you want to win those gift certificates I told you about, follow these simple rules: Play the role you're given. Play it to the hilt. Speak up. Try to keep the group on course as much as possible, leading if you can. Be a peacemaker if your group squabbles. Basically, you want to impress your Judge and your fellow players with your role-playing talents and your ability to be outspoken. Try not to tread on others' toes, though. That's almost certainly a winning combination for them to award you the certificate at the end.

If, for some reason, your Judge doesn't show up for the game, don't worry about it. Go to the information booth right away and get a refund on your ticket or trade it for a generic. Generic tickets are refundable right up to the end of the con.

One final word of advice. MECCA closes promptly each night at midnight, and they'll do their best to force you outside. If you've made arrangements to meet someone at midnight or later, I suggest the "all-night gaming" room in the Hyatt.

See you at GEN CON, and remember ... as the overloud, enthusiastic announcer likes to remind us: "THE DEALER'S ROOM WILL BE CLOSING IN FIVE MINUTES, FIIIIIIVE MINUTES."

Thanks to Jordan H. Orzoff for letting us post this on our site.

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