D&D 101: Playing at Conventions

Playing D&D at conventions offers a chance to see different styles of storytelling and DMing, but comes with some unique challenges. Welcome to D&D 101, a column that answers reader questions about Dungeons & Dragons (and other tabletop games.) We'll cover everything from game management skills, character builds, and creating memorable campaigns to some of the trickier "social" aspects of the game. If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in a future column, leave us a comment or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus and ask me on there!

This week's column was inspired by my recent summer of convention crawling. This year, I've had the opportunity to attend three major gaming events - D&D Live 2019, Origins, and Gen Con. D&D Live was a special, once in a lifetime opportunity to dive into the world of D&D, while Origins and Gen Con are among the biggest gaming conventions in the United States and offer plenty of opportunity to play D&D and other tabletop games. While I skipped playing D&D at Origins, I did get to roll some dice at both D&D Live and Gen Con, getting a chance to play with a mix of strangers and friends.

Many gaming conventions offer some form of D&D, whether its an intense weekend of playing through a storyline, a fun one-shot, or dusting off some rulebooks from older editions. The most standard form of D&D at conventions is Adventurers League play, a type of Organized Play sanctioned by Wizards of the Coast and played using certain rules. In Adventurers League Organized Play, you'll need to create a character using the Player's Handbook and one other source, and you'll be limited to what items you can carry. The good news is that an Adventurers League character can be used at any Adventurers League event, so you can take your character from your weekly AL game to the convention or vice versa.

If given the chance, D&D players will want to take part in a D&D Adventurers League Epic, a massive D&D session in which multiple tables work towards the same goals. Conventions are the perfect place for an Epic, which requires a ton of tables and dozens of DMs. While epics are a bit hectic (as there's usually a timer to complete your mission), they offer a different style of D&D than what you'd experience during a normal game. When playing through an Epic at D&D Live, we had the opportunity to barter with imps who passed by our table, deal with random threats flung at us by sadistic demons, and ultimately wait with bated breath as the results of dozens of tables were collectively tallied to determine the overall success or failure of the mission. An Epic is probably the closest you'll get to a MMORPG raid in D&D, and it's a really unique experience that everyone should try.

If Adventurers League isn't your style, you should be able to find a fun one-shot that offers a variety of different worlds to explore. At Gen Con this year, my wife and I had the opportunity to play a "Dungeons & Doggies" one-shot with Russ Charles, co-creator of the Animal Adventures miniatures line. Instead of playing as traditional adventurers, we stepped into the world of Dungeons & Doggies, playing as awakened dogs. In our scenario, we rescued dozens of stolen puppies from a fiendish devil named Cruella while experiencing some of the unique rules and abilities that Dungeons & Doggies had to offer. It was a fantastic time, and gave us the opportunity to play in a totally different world than what we see in our weekly games.

One lesson I learned about playing D&D at conventions is that you'll need to pay attention to event registration times. Spots at tables fill up fast, and waiting to sign up means that you'll either have a subpar time slot or no seat at the table at all. I got locked out of playing D&D during my first year attending Origins, which was a shame as Wizards of the Coast brought in some special DMs just for the event. Different conventions handle event registration differently, so you'll want to keep an eye on social media as to how and when you can sign up for events.

Besides competing with con-goers for a limited number of slots, another potential pratfall to playing at conventions is that they don't have control over who they play with. Con organizers usually train their DMs and have protocols in place to deal with problematic gamers, but incidents will still occasionally happen. A bad D&D experience can really sully a person's opinion of the game, and conventions can have a higher risk because you'll likely be playing with people you've never met before. Most players just want to play D&D and will be respectful of their other players, but remember that you'll likely be playing with someone new at a convention.

You'll also need to keep in mind that many D&D games have "hard deadlines," as the DMs need to run multiple games in a single day. As such, expect for your DM to railroad the story a little bit, or at least try to keep you focused on your main tasks. While exploration and discovery are part of every D&D game, you probably won't have time for a leisurely shopping trip during a convention D&D game.

If you don't get a slot at a convention table or you're worried about playing with strangers, another option is just to play with convention friends during your free time. One of my favorite parts of D&D Live was playing with a few new friends in our hotel lobby until 1 AM, sticking out like sore thumbs and loving every moment with it. D&D is super popular, and if you end up hitting it off with some folks while standing in line, you can always see if they want to play a quick game of D&D that night.

Another great part of attending conventions is that you'll probably have an opportunity to try other tabletop RPGs besides D&D. If you can get into a D&D table, try another TTRPG system like Numenera, Pathfinder, or Dungeon World. There are a ton of great TTRPG systems out there, and conventions are oftentimes the easiest place to try them out.

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As with any large event like a convention, it always helps to make plans in advance and to come prepared. Read up on where to eat at if you're traveling out of town, and don't be afraid to schedule some built-in "down time" to recharge during a busy convention. Conventions are a lot of fun, but they can be stressful too, so do what you can to alleviate that stress and anxiety both before and during the convention.

If you have a question for D&D 101, leave it in the comment section or find me on Twitter at @CHofferCbus to tell me what you want to see in a future column!