UK Games Expo - 31st May - 2nd June 2019

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Simonpaulburley

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UK Games Expo 31st May - 2nd June 2019

This is “the big one”. The biggest gaming event in the UK and the third biggest in the world. It’s not a TTRPG convention, it covers all sorts of tabletop gaming. In fact the only type of game it doesn’t cover is computer games. (They have enough conventions of their own.)

However, there is a significant amount of TTRPG gaming - 500 sessions in the “organised TTRPG track” alone - with multiple official multi-table TTRPG Tournaments, TTRPG “Games on Demand”, a TTRPG zone just for parents and children and numerous TTRPG demonstration games in the main trade hall.

The preparation for Expo starts about 6 months in advance. Some people start even earlier than that by booking their accommodation as soon as possible. Cost effective choices sell out fairly early for this particular weekend. However, officially, the call goes out for people to offer TTRPG games they want to Referee about 6 months before the convention. Seems early. Games I feel like Refereeing in January I may be bored by come June. But I understand the necessity. Referees and Games have to be approved and entered onto the Convention Game Booking system. And this has to happen early enough for punters to look at the offerings and get excited about coming.

Expo is a professional convention. As such it has a generous rewards policy for all volunteers, including TTRPG referees. If you offer a game, you get in free. If you offer to run enough games to provide 4 hours of fun for 30 people in total, they put you up in the Hilton hotel for free and even provide you with food.

In the past I’ve prided myself on being an “Iron Referee” at Expo, running 8 games in total across the three days and, even, turning up to offer a game in the open gaming area on the Thursday before the convention.

This year, however, I decided to try and rein in my addiction to Refereeing and try to see some of the rest of the event. So I offered the minimum games required to get maximum rewards - 5 four hour slots for 6 players apiece. 6 players is a lot to referee for but - in my experience - you often get people not turning up.

Then you have the ordeal of deciding what you want to offer. The rewards are earnt as soon as the games are accepted. If you don’t get any players, you still get the rewards. So it isn’t the end of the world if no-one chooses your game. But it still makes you feel a bit unloved.

So for my first game, Friday morning I decided to offer a classic “D&D” scenario run using the stripped down “The Black Hack” rules.

I chose to have Friday afternoon off the see the Trade Hall. (It’s a bit quieter on Friday.)

Friday evening I offered a Horror Scenario. I rarely Referee Horror adventures and when I do I am very choosy about the adventure. I have a total of four (and a half) in my repertoire. This scenario was actually an adventure which was given away free in the programme from the 2018 Dragonmeet Convention. It’s very well written. I’ve run it a few times and it’s always fun.

Saturday morning I offered my Steampunk Game “One of our Dinosaurs is Missing”. Saturday afternoon I offered a “Blakes Seven” adventure based on the classic TV series.

I planned to spend Saturday night seeing one of the many shows on offer at Expo.

Sunday morning I offered my Dr Who scenario. The EXACT SAME ONE I’ve offered Sunday afternoon at Expo for four years running. This would be the fifth year. The only difference was I now had the game statistics for the new, 13th, Doctor and her “mates”.

I kept Sunday afternoon free, waiting to see what fate would offer.

All of these adventures are ones I’ve run before and which I have faith in. All of them except one used my own game systems - and that one I was totally familiar with. IMHO Expo is not a convention to be taking risks. By accepting the offer of accommodation you’re effectively being paid to run games and it’s a VERY public forum. Offer what you know.

Naturally all 5 games were accepted. I’ve built up a good reputation with the organisers over the years. They trust me. And I know what to offer. If you’re new to offering games at the Expo you’ll probably only have one or two games accepted in the first year, unless you’re already known to the TTRPG Organiser (who does, at times, seem to be Omnipotent).

After your games are offered, you sit back and wait. You can’t help watching the booking system - which is superb, and the best I’ve seen at any convention - to see if people are buying tickets for your games. My Steampunk one sold out almost immediately - months before the event. My Horror one sold no tickets.

I was then contacted by the UK’s expert in Indie TTRPGs. He was arranging a meet-up of independent game authors and publishers such as myself on the Friday evening. This is one of my main issues with Expo. The TTRPGs are submitted and published before other events. So if an event comes up that you’d like to go to, it’s more than likely you’ve already offered a game in that slot.

Luckily, my Friday evening game still hadn’t sold any tickets. So I contacted the organisers, pulled the game, and offered one of Friday afternoon as well. Because it had sold out so fast, I offered a second run out for my Steampunk and Dinosaurs game. And its perfectly OK to do that. You don’t have to offer five different games across the weekend. If you’ve got something GOOD, there’s no shame in offering it twice. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you SHOULD offer it more than once to give as many people as possible the chance to play it.

Then it’s just waiting. Last year all volunteers were asked to take part in web-based training. As I’ve said this is a professional event and everyone affiliated with the convention needs to know the rules and procedures. This year we weren’t asked to do it again as we’d already completed it. Newcomers needed to complete it though. It’s just an hour long presentation you need to watch.

Just before the event I realised I’d made a mistake. I’d offered a game using “The Black Hack” rules. But the author had just written a second edition, and it was up for an Expo award. That meant that at the last minute I had to switch from the edition I was used to the new version which I hadn’t played before. There wasn’t much difference but it made me feel a bit out of sorts.

If you aren’t having your accommodation provided, I’d say book early and shop around. The Hotels on the NEC campus are frighteningly expensive that weekend and the supply and demand basis. To stay at the hotel I was in for the weekend would set you back over £1,000. There are far cheaper options. Birmingham City centre itself is only 10 mins away by train.

I’d also bring your own food and drink - a packed lunch. The NEC food prices are very high.

Finally, if you can get to the NEC the evening before the event, there is Open Gaming but, more importantly, you can collect your tickets early and avoid any crush on Friday morning.

I couldn’t get to Open Gaming this year as I’ve recently joined a local gaming club that meets every Thursday night. So I arrived early Friday morning.

The first thing I noticed was there were LOADS of ticket booths open for people to collect tickets from and the early attendees didn’t seem to have long queues to wait in. Referee tickets and packs were available from a separate secluded room and I was able to collect mine with ease.

The envelope contained my three day pass, slips for all of my games and a food voucher for each day, as well as printed instructions. Having grabbed that I headed over to the Hilton Hotel where the TTRPGs are housed - away from the noise and bustle of the main halls.

The convention starts at 10:00am but the TTRPGs start at 9:00am. This meant that those in charge of them had a very limited time to set up, open rooms etc. A queue formed with people uncertain of whether it was for Referees or Players. Naturally I pushed to the front to ask. Seeing that they weren’t ready, and trusting them, I went to sit on a comfy chair in the bar.

Shortly before 9:00am I walked back to the front desk. The queue was sorted and I was easily able to register my game on the desk’s computer. The convention has an excellent TTRPG management app, and logging your game in at the front desk is the first step. I then went to find my room.

This was a typical hotel convention room. It contained about 8 round tables, four or five of which had games on. One of the tables bore a bright yellow cloth. This was the table of the Room Captain! Their job is to keep an eye on the room and be the first port of call if anything seems amiss. There isn’t much to the role and I’d filled it in 2018. But I take responsibility seriously and had asked not to be given that job this year.

Because of the slight delay, I wasn’t quite as set up as I wanted to be as the session started. The first thing you do is collect your player’s tickets and enter them into the app on your phone. Then you press a button to start the game. As I said it’s a great app - it lets the front desk know immediately what games have spaces in if people turn up looking for one. If you don’t get any players, your game doesn’t run but you may be asked to play in another game to make up the numbers and allow it to take place.

My first game was fine but I felt a slight lack of familiarity with the system changes. But the players - a full table of six - were all old hands, understood the rules straight away, and didn’t notice anything amiss. I just found that in the new system characters seemed to do a bit less damage and can absorb a bit more, which made the adventure run a bit more slowly. We all had a great time though. As usual for the Expo, the players were just there to have a good time and were great fun.

During the game the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful yellow shirt volunteers came round to check that everything was OK, collect the tickets and take my Friday Food voucher and my food order. I chose a Burrito.

When I finished my game, the Burrito was waiting for me at the front desk. It was from the Food Vans that the convention organises outside the Hilton. These are artisan food stalls. They are no cheaper than the NEC/Hilton food but it is of much higher quality. The Burrito was amazing!

They give you a two hour break between the morning and afternoon games. Enough time to nip over to the Trade Hall if you want a quick look or visit the Viking display in the grounds between the two venues or pop into the “Collector’s Fair” which is always, co-incidentally, in a hall adjacent to the Expo. This year, the Expo ticket gets you in there for free. Two conventions for the price of one!

I found the two hour break a bit long but used it to check into my room and sort out my games stuff. Accommodation IS provided but you do have to share a room with another Referee, preferably a friend - as in my case.

The afternoon session runs from 3:00pm to 7:00pm. My Room Captain - coincidentally (or not) also my room-mate - had no players for his game so I was asked to take on the role for that session.

Another full table of 6 players for my Steampunk and Dinosaurs game. Another group just looking to have fun. A variety of genders and ages. One player seemed to be able to see into my head and predict every twist and turn of the game. But it was massive fun with a wild ending involving a giant scientist and one character turning out to a Roger Moore type smoothie, romancing the enemy spy.

My game ended in good time but, to my horror, I saw that four other tables in the room showed no signs of finishing. I had my Indie Gamer’s meet up to go to. I politely reminded all the referees of the time but none seemed to show any inclination to wrap up. Eventually I had to go the front desk and call the Organiser in to have a word with them. Another Referee was temporarily made Room Captain and I made it to my Indie Designers event just in time.

This was good and well meaning and had plenty of potential for networking. But one of the reasons I play TTRPGs is because they give me a structure to interact with other people. I’m not as good in unstructured social situations and didn’t make best use of the meeting. I was also surprised to see so many people from a professional company there as well. However, I will go again next year and try to prepare myself to make better use of the time.

It was then that I made my biggest discovery of the weekend. You don’t get any food vouchers for your evening meal. Prices in the Hilton are notoriously high. The Bar food is expensive and the staff are overwhelmed and slow. Allegedly even a cup of coffee costs £5! However, one of the larger suites had been turned over to Open Gaming. The convention trade halls close down for the evening and many gamers decamp to the Hilton looking for somewhere to play. And in the corner, the convention organisers had prevailed upon the hotel to set up a stand featuring “gamer food”. Still a bit pricey (£5.10 for a pint, £1.20 for a can of coke, £1 for crisps, and £4.75 for the limpest most pathetic sandwiches you’ll ever see) but it had a “meal deal” for £6, it WAS the cheapest coke anywhere in the convention and there was no queue and the staff were quick, professional and polite. This was to be my stopping point throughout the weekend.

After my sandwich I went to find my evening show. I found a huge queue snaking across the hotel being professionally managed by the wonderful, wonderful yellowshirts. Despite the huge numbers we were soon in and seated.

This was “The Dark Room” a live on-stage computer text adventure. Basically a shouty Australian haranguing the audience with the kind of catchphrases, in jokes and call and response stuff that English audiences love. Real end of the pier stuff. It was good and funny - and it’s easy to see why people return year after year - and presenter was an impressive force of nature. But it was a bit too rumbustious for my tastes.

After the show, I thought I’d grab another meal deal in case I got hungry in the night. Something strange happened. The lady serving was trying to clear out all the leftover sandwiches rather than throw them away. As I was the only person who wanted any, she emptied the chiller cabinet in front of me. About a dozen sandwiches for £2.40. I put them in a box, claimed my own and took the rest to the front desk for the wonderful, wonderful yellow shirts.

In the morning I got up early. Breakfast is included with the room - and it is a very very good hotel buffet breakfast - but experience tells me that the room fills up fast. I got in my 7:00am and by the time I’d finished my cereal course, the queue for the hot food filled the room. However, by the time I’d finished my fruit course it had died down.

Over the course of the hour I rinsed the breakfast, consuming a total of 5 different courses and entertaining people on twitter with the description of my Mr Creosote-like activities. The free hotel breakfast is always one of the highlights of Expo for me.

I was in my room in good time for my morning game. Alas, the internet backbone seemed to crumble under the weight of the busy Saturday at the Expo, so I was unable to use the app to record my players’ tickets. But the wonderful, wonderful yellowshirts collected them in the old fashioned way.

This game was another run out for my Steampunk and dinosaurs game. Again a table of six players. But this time they were all middle-aged, white, men like myself. (What we now call “Grognards”.) I am good with and enjoy diverse tables of players but sometimes its nice to play with your own kind for a bit.

This table totally “got” my game system, milking all the goodness out of every drop. The same scenario, a totally different outcome with the engines from a wrecked airship being repurposed into makeshift missiles to catch the fleeing mad scientist. That’s why I run games more than once. They always work out differently.

Lunch was Burrito again. Over lunch I began to pick up stories from the Trade Hall. Apparently it was rammed and getting around it was difficult, bordering on unpleasant, at times. Hint: Saturday is VERY busy in the Trade Halls.

There was an excellent seminar that I would have liked to go to and if I’d known about it early enough, I would have offered a game in the evening to keep my afternoon free.

My afternoon game was my Blakes Seven Game - based on the classic TV series. Only 5 players this time - and again all Grognards. Well, I suppose it IS an old TV series. Great players - who, again, totally “got” my rules. Great fun. Round of applause at the end.

Tea was another meal deal.

I’d booked two shows that night. The first was “Knightmare: Live”. Based on the old TV series. Ambitious but a bit ramshackle. There’s an idea in there somewhere but they need to hone the good bits (the animated wall acting was excellent) and drop some of the less successful elements. The audience seemed to love it though, so maybe I’m just an old fusspot.

After that it was straight into Jollyboat. I’ve been aware of them for a while, met them, even have one as a FaceBook friend, but never seen them perform. I didn’t realise just how good they were. The act is pirates singing funny songs but there’s just so much talent at so many levels that I could appreciate. I’ve written parody songs myself so I can tell you these were top notch. I play the guitar a bit and can tell you, these guys are GOOD. They’ve got great singing voices. But best of all they’re dyed in the wool gaming nerds whose songs feature gags about Owlbears and Mimmicks. It’s like they’re plugged straight into your funny bone. I loved ‘em. (I also messaged by FB buddy afterwards and blagged my way into running some TTRPGs at their upcoming convention.)

Then another meal deal (a different, less generous, woman tonight) and to bed.

Up early for another 5 course breakfast feast. Then my Dr Who game. I’ve run this one dozens and dozens of times over 5 years at dozens of conventions for hundreds of people and it still delivers. A diverse table of 5 players. This lot cleverly avoided fighting the “big bad” - instead accidentally creating their own “big bad” - a giant four armed Cyber-Jhduhn as it happens - to fight it for them. Admittedly the 13th Doctor was behaving more like the 6th, but - by god - I love running this adventure.

Lunch was spiced Korean fish and chips which was simply AMAZING.

I was tired by then. Not as tired as most people. Many people go a bit wild at Expo and stay up until the early mornings - gaming, drinking, socialising. I’d paced myself, sensibly, but was still flagging. I considered going home early as all the TTRPGs were booked up. However, I hung around the front desk and managed to get into a Call of Cthulhu game. This was a pleasant, mild, stroll through the backwaters of England which unfolded about about a tenth of the pace of one of my games. But I was playing specifically to try and hone my skills as a PLAYER - which I know are poor. I think I succeeded. I didn’t force the pace. I kept my mouth shut most of the time and “bigged up” the other players and their characters and let them solve the mystery - playing the role of jokey sidekick.

And then a train ride home.

I thoroughly enjoyed Expo this year. I didn’t get anywhere near the trade halls and feel all the better for that. If you like board and card games or bring and buy stalls there are two halls of goodness for you - three counting the Collector’s Fair. It’s just not for me. The organisation this year was just slick and the yellowshirt volunteers were amazing! And all my games had full tables making me feel loved and wanted. It was a lovely weekend.


Next year I may offer 6 games for 5 people instead of 5 games for 6 and hold off offering some of them until the seminar schedule is announced. I won’t be going to any shows - even JollyBoat. I think I’ll be seeing THEM again well before Expo 2020.

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