Because of my position as event coordinator, I have been unable to make time to play any games for the past two years at Who’s Yer Con. This year, I decided to look at the calendar to see if there was a convention in the Boston area (after I returned from my Indiana vacation) at which I could enjoy some gaming in a Con environment. With the help of the Google I stumbled across ConBust, at Smith College in Amherst, Massachusetts, about a 2-hour drive from where I live. I did some more digging online, and after reading about it, I wasn’t sure what to expect. So I got up early on Saturday for my day-trip to the other side of the state.
My first impression of ConBust is that it would be exactly like every single other small gaming convention I have ever been to. I arrived on campus and had no idea where to park or where Seelye Hall was. Luckily, I spotted a young woman, her head mostly shaved, with only a tuft of green-dyed hair sticking up. Because the rest of her outfit would similarly fail to qualify as “Saturday casual” in most places, I figured she was probably going to the con herself, and upon verifying this, I asked her for help finding parking and the convention location. Being a Jules Verne fan herself, she was quite amused when she later learned that I frequently use “Captain Nemo” as a nickname on online forums.
My second impression of ConBust is that it would be completely different from any other small gaming convention I have ever been to. Behind the registration table was a large sign, boldly lettered, which read (something like) “Harassment of any sort will not be tolerated. If you are making someone uncomfortable, we will ask you to leave, and we will call security if necessary. Your registration fee will not be refunded.”
You see, I left out two facts in the first paragraph. Smith College is an all-women’s college, and ConBust is a convention which focuses on women’s participation and contributions to various geekdoms. While most conventions have anti-harassment policies, the implicit message in the sign above the registration table was, “Men are welcome here. However, before you step out of line, remember that we do outnumber you here.” As it turns out, my first and second impressions were both completely accurate. Con attendance numbers totaled 500, I later learned, and if I were to guess based on what I observed, I would estimate that about 25-40% of the attendees on Saturday were male.
There were some differences in the atmosphere. For example, there were a lot more people in costume than I would usually expect to see, which was fun, and many of the seminars were related to crafts and costuming, more than I would normally expect. Also, the free food offered was a bit different. Some fare was the usual “soda, chips, pretzel” mix one would expect to find. However the token vegetable tray was actually close to empty, and if one wanted to avoid potato chips but still enjoy some crunch, pomegranate chips were available. I’m not entirely convinced that after being sliced thin, deep-fried, and coated with salt, pomegranates are much healthier than potatoes, but they were pink, which was novel. There was also a Kosher table (it was Passover weekend) and a gluten-free table.
Most of the convention events were located in the bottom three floors of one building on campus, approximately 30 classrooms of various sizes. The dealer hall and the artist’s alley each took up two rooms, and featured booths selling the usual convention staples – games, comics, t-shirts, ring maille, and a local author (Resa Nelson) who was selling and autographing her books. There were also a few student-designed webcomics, a “bubble tea” booth, a couple of representatives from the Higgins Armory Museum, and an enthusiastic website designer who was encouraging people to either link the webcomic they were creating to a portal, or to sign up for said portal, which would alert its subscribers when their webcomics updated. I hope that the author and the game store vendors were both glad I was there, at any rate, based on my purchases. I am also hoping to make a stop at the Higgins Armory before it closes at the end of the year.
Other rooms had anime going non-stop, movies going non-stop (I could have watched the Dark Knight trilogy in the relaxing atmosphere of a college classroom, had I so desired), and some gaming. Gaming was not the focus of the convention; rather, it was a relatively small part of the experience, but there was one particularly rare opportunity available of which I was able to take advantage.
Gaming was mostly limited to a room with Rock Band going non-stop; a 4e slot run Friday night; Steve Jackson Games showing off a wide selection of their games via demos and a tournament (you may have heard of Chez Geek, Frag, and/or Munchkin and its many variations and offshoots); a Deadlands LARP in an ongoing campaign; and a couple of slots of a role-playing system called “Capes, Cowls, and Villains Fowl” (CCVF), including the slot I played in, which was run by its creator (Barak Blackburn).
The CCVF adventure was a blast. We all got to create our own superheroes and form a team, learn to work together, and role-play to defeat three big-bads. The character creation is very flexible, and the mechanics of combat seem very loose. Teamwork is rewarded, and role-playing is emphasized greatly over simply “roll”-playing. What I particularly liked, though, was that this was a game that would be found in very few other places. I did some digging, and while it’s now available on DrivethruRPG.com, it is relatively new (run for the 4th year in a row at ConBust) and apparently evolved locally (much like Darkus Thel in Fort Wayne. Wait, you’ve never heard of Darkus Thel? Have you ever been to Pentacon? I have only seen it once outside of Pentacon, at a game day at Saltire games).
While the quality of gaming available was good, the variety was a bit limited, and there were no organized open gaming spaces. While gaming is certainly not the focus of the convention, and there was very limited space available at most times on Saturday, it seemed there were times when there was a room not in use that could have been converted for another game or for open gaming. Also, very few of the gaming events were run by women (as far as I could see; I was only there Saturday, but I later learned that the session of CCVF run Sunday morning was run by a woman); while this might seem normal at most conventions, it seemed odd here. That said, while Steve Jackson games seemed to have a full house while I was there, the CCVF game had room for several other players, so there may not be much demand for gaming. I have also been told that, space permitting, an open gaming room is being considered for next and future years. Given my own experience working with Who’s Yer Con, I am very sympathetic to the point, “we just didn’t have enough space.”
The real focus of the con is its seminars. I think at any given time, at least half of the organized activities revolved around a talk being given by a guest author, artist, or other expert. The seminars were a good mix of those you might find at any GenCon or Origins (crafting, how to build a world, how to break into the business, shout-outs to various fandoms et al) and those with a decided focus on the female experience in sci-fi/fantasy/anime/gaming.
A sample included (panel leaders’ names omitted, although they can easily be found online):
Being creeped on at the convention? Not sure how to interact without coming off like a creeper? We have been in your shoes enough times to help you through these frustrating circumstances. Come to our panel to find out tips and techniques to help you avoid creepers while learning how to not (accidentally) become one yourself.
Ethics and Superheroes
In the first part of our discussion we’ll talk about the code of the hero, the ethics displayed in the hero’s world, and how two heroes can have very different codes and still be right. In the second, we’ll discuss the responsibilities of the creator to their characters, their audience, and the universe in which they write. Plus we’ll make fun of Frank Miller.
Female Protagonists, Female Villains
Why aren’t there more of them, and why are the ones we have all alike? Do women always have to be sexy — or sexual interests? Can they be sexy and still be characters? How many fail the Bechdel test? Is making a “female version” of a character beneficial or harmful? Come for the discussion, stay for the ranting!
This panel will discuss ways to put together cosplays with a college student’s budget as well as some techniques for people who are short on time or cannot sew.
Religion in Scifi/Fantasy
All hail Groktor, god of bicycles! When are religions left out, and when are they too ridiculous to stand? Join us for a talk on when and why to include the Powers That Be in literature.
I attended the last on the list myself, actually, and ended up chatting later with someone else who had been there – L, a conservative Jew who had bemoaned the absence of Judaism in much of genre fiction (note: while I have given full names of published authors, I prefer to use initials for others at the convention with whom I interacted). As an evangelical Christian, I mentioned that I get tired of seeing my beliefs treated as a caricature, but wasn’t sure that was worse than being simply ignored. I recall a brief digression into Supernatural’s mistreatment of the Golem mythos from Jewish folklore (I must confess, my primary exposure to the “golem” is through the necromancer’s powers in Diablo 2, and I’ve only watched the two episodes of Supernatural featuring Felicia Day). Chatting yet later again, it turned out that while this year she is the treasurer for ConBust, she was my counterpart at ConBust last year, arranging to fill the seminar rooms with speakers in the same way I fill the event grid with tables and games at Who’s Yer Con.
Awkward moments included the gender-neutral bathrooms (okay, THAT really shouldn’t have been a surprise, and it’s something I’ve had to deal with before, but I’m still not particularly comfortable with the notion) and asking a green-painted young woman if she was She-Hulk (“Well, actually, more like a female version of the classic Hulk, because of the torn pants and bare feet. She-Hulk wears a leotard and boots.”) Sorry about that, R. I saw a green-skinned female superhero and jumped to the wrong conclusion. Thanks for being a good sport about correcting me.
All in all, I had a great time and if I am in New England next year at the end of March, I would love to come back. Prices are reasonable, and they offer student and pre-registration discounts. I realize that most of the readers of this blog live in or near Indiana, but if you happen to be in or near western Massachusetts next spring, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Additionally, I would like to thank the kind folks at ConBust for reading my first draft and pointing out some factual errors I could fix BEFORE this went online.