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Q-CON 2014 – Reviewing my first (proper) Gaming Con

Q-CON 2014 was the first convention that I’ve properly attended. I’ve been to both a Stargate SG-1 convention in Vancouver, and the Edinburgh SESWC Claymore annual event, but Q-CON was the first proper gaming convention I’d spent more than a few hours in. Over the years, a number of us Edinburgh residents have been heading over there as part of “Cthulhu Team”, running (and playing) both LARP [Live Action RolePlaying] and tabletop RPGs. I’ve been meaning to go for a few years bit always had work or didn’t feel up to it.

As you can see here, I was running three games in one day and intended to blog on a daily basis about how I got on there. It didn’t quite work that way. Time and fatigue did for that! I’ve also tried to make suggestions that’ll work for any gaming con, not just Q-CON. I should point out that I’m largely soft-spoken and my hearing isn’t great: sensorineural deafness means I can’t tune out background noise (and, no, hearing aids or surgery won’t help). I’m not always good in social situations as a result. Still, enough of the excuses – let’s talk about the convention and getting there! Also, please bear in mind these are my personal experiences. I wrote my thoughts each day, so this may be a bit disjointed but bear with me…

Q-CON 2014, Z-1 Days (Thursday)

I flew out on Thursday, the day before Q-CON opened, and it did not begin well with a 4:30am start! I’d packed everything the night before. I chose not to take any toiletries due to the pesky airline security restrictions (one bag? Really?). The bag was pretty heavy once I’d put my Achtung! Cthulhu source-book, Call of Cthulhu rulebook and adventure notes into it. I’d initially planned to bring them on my Samsung Note 10.1 tablet, but the blasted thing had corrupted the micro SD card. It’s the second time it’s happened and is apparently a known error… Either way, I could have run without either book, but it would have been handy to have it in a digital version. So, the rucksack was heavier as a result. Purists may claim that having to refer the rulebook is the sign of a bad GM. I call it “Belt and Braces” (see later!).

Tip: If you can, use a tablet/netbook and SD card to store game rulebook/adventure/supplement PDFs and notes  (legal ones of course) in a SD card. Also place them in online storage like Dropbox/OneDrive as well. Remember that you may not have access to wifi, so sync before you go!

As I live in Edinburgh, just off Leith Walk. It’s Edinburgh’s longest street apparently. I live halfway down it and it certainly feels that way sometimes. So I’m awake at 4:30 am, the day before Q-CON. The weather was pretty close, so it was  restless night. “Air conditioning” in my flat means opening the window. Bastard seagulls. Usually, there are loads of buses going up and down Leith Walk even at ~4:30am. Two pass me before I get to the stop, and there’s no sign of any other buses the length of Leith Walk. Damn. So I walk up the street, cutting through the train station, by the end of which I’m sweating like a pig. Nice.

Edinburgh has something of a reputation transport-wise. The trams would take 40 minutes, the airport shuttle, 30. The Lothian bus airport shuttle leaves every 10 minutes from outside Waverley Station, and because I have a Lothian Buses Ridacard for getting to work, it costs me nothing to take the shuttle (£4 single/£7 return for everyone else). It’s already there when I arrive, and gives a great view across Edinburgh in the sun. We were a couple of minutes late due to an ongoing debate between a passenger and the driver over the fact that “£4 was a lot of money”. Urgh. By now I’m getting a bit anxious. I’ve left a fair bit of time to get through both town and security at Edinburgh Airport (which was a crowded nightmare as usual).

Even so, I was getting a bit nervous – especially when I remember that the Royal Highland Show would be on at some point, beside the airport. However I made it with 20 minutes to spare (gate closing at 6:30am) and met a couple of other members of “Cthulhu Team”. So, the flight headed out on time at 7am. I flew with Easyjet, who run a regular service out to Belfast International. It takes approximately 30-40minutes – or you could take the ferry. From the airport it’s a journey by bus. Ulsterbus service 300 arrives every half-hour (£7 single, £10:50 return) and is comfortable. Taxis will cost you a fortune.

Belfast is a city that is not unknown to me over the years. I have a fairly good sense of direction. Usually. Turns out I was out by 90 degrees this time (see later). So the others and I set off to the Q-CON venue. As it is Queen’s University Belfast Dragonslayers who run the con, they get the use of the Student Union for Q-CON. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the bus station at the Europa arcade.

Tip: Give yourself plenty of time to find your way around Belfast. The Mountains of Mourn are a good landmark! If you use the Ulster Bus service 300, there’s Boots at the main entrance to the shopping arcade/bus station that has toiletry stuff, often in miniature.

Gods, it was hot already – especially with a heavy rucksack on my back. When we got to QUBSU, much of the Q-CON set-up was already well under way before we arrived. We decided to have some brunch at Maggie May’s, directly across from the Union on Malone road. They do a proper Ulster Fry and their milk shakes are popular too. They’re also cheaper than hotel breakfast (I ate again there later).

The QUBSU is huge, with several floors plus a basement. We headed upstairs to the 2nd floor snack bar. Designated a Traders area, it was well under construction but I offered to muck in and help laying out chairs and tables (so helped in a minor way). Q-CON stewards handed out water and the like, so I was very grateful for that! I also got introduced to a whole number of people whose names I regrettably promptly forgot, including the Q-CON organisers and Prodos Games team later. The local SU shops also get in on the act with extra space being used for not only food and drink sales, but books and electrical goods.

Tip: if you’re a cos-player looking to get changed or someone who isn’t overly fond of using public toilets, the ones on the second floor are the best – they are used by staff. The students toilets in the Speakeasy bar and on the ground floor put me in mind of my student days. Yeuch.

Founder member of Cthulhu Team and I, Marc Farrimond, headed into town. I couldn’t check in until later at the Hotel Ibis City Centre. We were on a mission to find the local Forbidden Planet store, and Siri was feeling temperamental. We did find it – and it is a lot better than its chain counterpart in Edinburgh, including a large amount of board games and miniatures/CCG/RPGS. After we had lunch in the Mermaid’s Inn (locked away down a pend [alley]!). Afterwards I was able to check in, before heading back to the Q-CON venue. It’s a long walk, but at least I wasn’t weighed down with a rucksack!

The Hotel Ibis (City Centre) is a fairly basic hotel that caters to – largely – business customers I would think. In my few days there, certainly there were no kids running around. Wifi is free, but breakfast is £7.99 which is pricey (as are the drinks from the bar!). The room was a basic en suite, a TV with dead remote, and a crack in the wall – what you’d expect from a 3* budget hotel really (wasn’t cheap, though!). However it was clean, and shower was a welcome respite from the heat.

I headed back to the Union, and played a few games of pool . Then remembered why I don’t it very often – my pool-playing”skills” vary from “Jammy git!”, to “Sorry about your pint!”. I met the rest of Cthulhu Team later, but was pretty much wiped with the heat and food I’d already eaten, and by 9pm was ready to turn in. As it was a close night, I switched on the room’s air con. I pretty much went out like a light.

Q-CON – Day 1 (Friday)

Woke up early, and I decided not to eat breakfast at the hotel and headed out to Q-CON, as I was pre-registered.As is often the case on my travels I wandered around the area picking up landmarks, and knowing where to go if I needed something specific. After having something to eat in Maggie May‘s, I headed over to see the others. In the Trader’s Hall a huge robot constructed of balloons (amazing one-man effort) loomed over the proceedings as traders frantically tried to get set-up before the official 2pm opening. As I’d preregistered for Q-CON I could get in from 12pm apparently. And herein lies one of my few criticisms – Q-CON’s registration/queuing system. If you pre-register you’re supposed to be “fast tracked” into the convention. Don’t assume you’ll be able to walk straight in – it might have been easier if we could have picked up our lanyard earlier. Maybe it was the wrong impression I got, but “fast tracking” felt a little redundant when you have to queue for 30 minutes outside. In the past there were convention bags at Q-CON and this year, the Q-CON lanyard was introduced – sheets of card and a badge on a cord that whacked me in the eye twice before I removed the cards.

There were a huge amount of cos-players on site from the outset. To the unaware, these are the folk who get dressed up in costumes  – cos(tume) players. Some from TV/movies, but mainly from anime and computer games. Some were elaborate, some simple but there were a lot I didn’t recognise. Aside from Akira, Legend of the Overfriend (Steve!), the Evangelion reboot and The Guyver series, my anime knowledge is sketchy to non-existent. They were doing some sort of mime-play combat outside that I didn’t strictly understand, but it certainly made the outside of Q-CON a visual spectacle. If felt like Sunday at Harajuku Station in Tokyo all over again… I headed upstairs (once I got in) and visited the Traders area. I had a brief chat with Kenneth Gregory and Laurence Donaghy, “local writers from local publishers,” Blackstaff Press. Both were easy to talk to, and happily signed copies of the books I bought, which didn’t take much convincing of me on their part. Expect a review of these at some point 🙂

Tip: if you buy boardgames or extra books it might be cheaper to post them back using Parcelforce. Two standard RPG books cost £12.98, rather than getting an extra luggage allowance. There’s two post offices only a short distance away from Q-CON in either direction. Remember that they aren’t open on Sundays! Alternatively take an empty suitcase and pay for the allowance :), perhaps sharing the cost.

After catching up with the rest of Cthulhu Team , we all headed to Nandos for lunch. Not a bad meal, and bottomless drinks were definitely needed. It was “hotter than Vulcan’s jock-strap” outside. I am also now a member of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D – some of the folks from Cthulhu Team were playing a Cliché RPG later and were dressing for the part, and had a number of ID lanyards. They were also stopping various Superhero cos-players and asking to see their registration :). I’m not going to go into any detail on the various film-showings, stand-up comedy, hypnotism, cosplay masquerades, CCG tournaments, LARPs, console competitions, boardgames or wargames – they were all there at Q-CON, though! And yes, it got warm – but most folk there showered or at least had some sense of personal hygiene. Compared to certain other conventions, the stench wasn’t too bad – most folk there looked like they showered. There were a few that reeked but that was rare, fortunately!

Tip: Make sure you shower regularly. Poor personal hygiene is no excuse at 9am (or ever in this modern age). Hand sanitizer is also a must, especially if you’re meeting and greeting (like a GM). Or generally doing anything with shared props like boardgames.

I headed back to the hotel to drop off some stuff, then headed back to the convention. I was suffering a bit from overload so needed a bit of time to chill (literally). Also, I was looking forward to checking out the South Dining Hall where the RPGs were being staged. The South Dining Hall had been set-up pretty well – plenty of room for GM and up to six players. There were a large number of Pathfinder Society (PFS) games on and quite a few competition ones (pay-to-play in this case). There was a bit of a cock-up with the queuing – which saw one queue diverge into two, with the sign-ups for other (non-PFS and competition) games splitting into a divergent one. Urgh. Plus people should remember that there are folks behind waiting: S.U.A.P.O! (Sign Up And Piss Off!).

I signed up to play Marc’s Cliché RPG, a science fiction game in this case. Cliché: “The Roleplaying game of making movies” is the creation of Marc Farrimond (who is generally all round gamer good egg here in Edinburgh and Q-CON!). It’s a dice-less RPG that proved an exercise in collaborative story-telling. I’ve run it once before, when it was a game of horror roleplaying – it’s since been altered to work outside this though. I’d originally planned for the character I played to be based upon Riddick, from the movie of the same game. As is always the case there’s at least one player who tries to derail things and/or focus attention purely on him. I wasn’t that player. I did come out of my shell a bit more. In fact, my PC never met the other PCs at all. I made my player the villain of the piece. An Artist, if you will; who combined the sadistic mind of Batman‘s Joker, organisation of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s Clairvoyant, and the pull of Half-Life‘s G-Man. The “Eyes are the windows of the soul” speech I gave genuinely creeped everyone out (but I can’t remember what I said now. Afterwards Marc has said:

“It took a psychopath to keep the game sane.” – Marc Farrimond

I enjoyed myself immensely. Although the background noise could occasionally get a little loud: Da Boyz was enjoying demsleves! Big Rok 9, a mashup of wh40K Orks and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 was happening nearby. I’ll leave the RPG blurb here, mainly because it is just a great idea and why the hell not?

Waaaagh Trek: Big Rok 9
A 40k RPG scenario by Paul Taylor
Kaptin’z log, Today: Dem Tao boys is tryin ta come thoo da big space hole thingy, der spikey eldar palz is waitin to take da big rok off us. We’z not gonna let that happen, we’z gonna blow thems all ta tiny bitz. It’s waaaaaargh! time boyz!

There were around 10 games on that night so it wasn’t too bad and a good way for me to pick things up (a “recce” as it were).

Q-CON – Day 2 (Saturday)

I went for the hotel breakfast before heading over to Q-CON and my “Iron GM” marathon. I felt pretty nervous, and it was going to be a long day! I was the first GM there so opened the windows to make sure there was a cross-breeze and that the hall was ventilated at least. Far less issues with the queues this time! Q-CON staff were great, handing out water (and other drinks) plus snacks to the GMs running. It was a welcome treat – and necessity, later!

There were a number PFS games on as well as quite a few others. Achtung! Cthulhu: A Prayer for St.Nazaire (Game 1 –  morning) filled up in under 10 minutes. So I got started. It actually went pretty well and gave me the confidence to continue, despite finishing  a little earlier than planned. One of the PCs died and I had a lot of fun with the monster known as Die Toten from Achtung! Cthulhu. One thing was obvious though: I’d need to project my voice and concentrate. After 20 minutes the background noise tended to dull and we could crack on – but I’d need to keep concentrating!

Tip: make sure you know what you’re running. Read through your stuff the day before and if there’s anything missing or you’re unclear on – check it! That’s the “Belt and Braces” approach.

Game 2 (afternoon) was “If you go down to the woods today“, my Necroscope/Call of Cthulhu mash-up. It was one of those games where my players had no knowledge of the world. In this case, of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series. However, we had a great time – and although there were only 5 players this time – it was FUN! I’m not certain if any of the players knew each other, but its safe to say they were working as a team toward the end. They set fire to an orphanage! Drove like maniacs! Screamed their way through Lyndhurst’s one-way system in a Fiat! Saved from a Wamphyri by a coach! Chased by a coach! Ah, good times. By now, I was starting to feel the strain of GM’ing so when it finished I was knackered.

At this point, I got my “second wind” to borrow a 4e McGuffin rules device. My last game to run at Q-CON, The Void RPG – “Beneath this placid surface“. This was not my best game. I had to “rein in” one of the players at one point, and should have done it earlier – of course, hindsight is 20/20. I was also a bit more nervous as I could have researched the adventure more, and two of Cthulhu Team were playing – so, peer pressure! However, aside from that and a momentary panic attack (where I couldn’t remember the name of the moon – Europa!). It was worth it when it came to the revelation that the people WEREN’T going missing hit the players. And that the entire habitat was contrived… But, yes: I could have run it better.

Tip: Strepsils are great for the GM who feels their voice going. Don’t over do them though!

So, not long after the games finished, I headed over to the Q-CON Pub Quiz. It was past 9pm and the quiz was in full swing. At a guess, I’d I got there just after the film round (D’OH!), and joined the rest of Cthulhu Team in the Speakeasy. Good grief, my geek knowledge has atrophied over the years. However, I was there for a truly epic moment. There was a film clip.

This is gonna get loud. – Chris McWatters, Q-CON Staff.

And yes, it was this one. Wow, IT WAS LOUD. Apparently, it drowned out the World Cup on the rooftop bar nearby. We were two floors down and indoors!

By 11:20pm I was knackered and slogged back to the hotel, playing Belfast “Frogger”. This is where drunk guys oscillate back and forth while  you try to move past. And insane women totter out into the road to hail taxis while clotheslining pedestrians. Ah, just like Edinburgh.

So I get back to the hotel to find it full of 30-year old women on the “ran-dan”. Wow- still can’t remember who used that phrase. In my mind at that time…

I wanna see how it ends – Spike. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

…I wished. Voice was totally knackered, brain was fried, so had a drink and headed to my room. BAM. Hello, Sunday!

Q-CON – Day 3 (Sunday)

Sunday was pretty much a dead loss after Saturday’s excesses! I slept in, then slunk over to QUBSU. I queued up, and then signed up for a game in the afternoon (cue S.U.A.P.O moment!). My PC got eaten by a Cave Fisher. Ach, I was tired and cranky anyway – it was the D&D module “Scourge of the Slave Lords“. It wasn’t really working for me anyway – definitely a better GM than player.

So, I mooched over to the Traders area and bought the Mutant Chronicles rules from the Prodos guys.

Tip: no one wants to run at Q-CON on Sunday morning. So if you’re planning anything intellectually challenging, forget it.

At this point I was happy to take a walk in Belfast Botanic Gardens nearby. It was a lovely day, and it was good to let go and clear my head after Saturday! I spent a couple of hours there, because I was feeling a bit restless.

Tip: If you’re feeling a bit burned out, the Botanic Gardens are a less that 100 feet away from the Union. Worth a visit to chill out.

So, it was time for the Closing Ceremony. Everyone queued to get in and we waited. Then got into the Mandela hall and waited some more :). Various music was played (sorry, not a fan of Muse!) then Nena‘s “99 Red Balloons” came on. A cosplayer dressed as Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head then became the centre of a spiral as everyone double conga’d around him – kid done a great costume though! Fantastic surreal moment. Cthulhu Team headed for a drink in the bar then went out for food. As I walked away from the building I knew I’d taken my first step into a much larger world.

Reflection – Q-CON 2014

Will I be going back to Q-CON 2015? Hell, yes. I had fun. I was made to feel welcome. I’m not always an easy person to relate to. Yet I felt I was part of a community rather than a commodity. Yes, I may have only been someone that ran and played RPGs. I’m not cosplayer (I towered over a lot of folk I think!). Nor card gamer. Or console gamer. Or wargamer. Who cares? We’re there to have fun! Ultimately, I enjoyed myself.Despite some minor logistics issues, I’ll be back early next year, hauling tables and chairs!

And remember this:

It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me – Batman, Batman Begins