Behold, a Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention

Starter guide to attending a tabletop gaming convention - PAX unplugged events

Are you going to your first tabletop gaming convention? Intimidated? Tabletop gaming conventions are huge events and can be overwhelming for first-time attendees. You never know what to expect!

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Tabletop gaming conventions pull you from reality, surrounding you with exciting gaming events, cosplay, celebrities, artists, and designers. Many vendors from big and small companies attend tabletop gaming conventions. So, don’t forget the amazing shopping opportunities for your favorite geek merchandise.

In this article, guest writer Eleni Stamos shares her experience attending PAX Unplugged, the largest annual tabletop gaming convention held in the US East Coast.

She provides her insights, tips and guide to attending a large tabletop gaming convention. Check it out below!


What is PAX Unplugged?

PAX was originally known as “Penny Arcade Expo”, a series of gaming culture festivals revolving around tabletop games (e.g., rpgs, boardgames), arcade, and video games. PAX events are held annually across the United States in Seatle, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, as well as in Melbourne, Australia.

PAX events were originally founded in 2004 by the two authors of the Penny Arcade webcomic, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik.

They wanted a show exclusively for gaming.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - Pax welcome!
Welcome to PAX! Notice of filming: “You’re likely to be filmed, photographed, or recorded. Just giving you a heads up.” Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Mr. Holkin and Krahulik’s vision for PAX included guest speakers from the gaming industry, game-culture inspired music concerts, and a host of panels on gaming topics. Vendors and exhibitors from major game developers and publishers, as well as tabletop gaming tournaments and events, with freeplay areas, have all become defining characteristics of PAX events.

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PAX Unplugged is the analog-focused extension of the existing portfolio of PAX events. The PAX events organizers discovered that tabletop gaming parts of PAX have grown in size to the point that tabletop games needed its own show. The organizers concluded, “You know what? Let’s make a show that’s just that [tabletop games].” PAX Unplugged was born and is an event specifically tailored to tabletop gamers of all ages.

Read on for a first-hand guide with tips to help you make sure you have a great time and do everything you want to do. And, of course, come back for more!


I have convention tickets, now what?

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - Tickets now what

You’ve got tickets to PAX Unplugged, now what? If this is your first venture out to a convention, it’s good to prepare a few things!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - journey begins
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

You already know that Pax Unplugged has run for several years now and the event grows each time.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - magic gathering
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

You know it’s meant for those who love tabletop gaming and “unplugged” gaming methods such as Dungeon and Dragons (DnD), Magic the Gathering (MTG), and board games.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - DnD - dungeon and dragons
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

But, what should you expect to see there?


Be prepared for traffic and limited parking

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - tips to beat traffic

If you’re headed to the Philadelphia Convention Center (or any other convention for a large event), be prepared for traffic and little to no parking availability. To avoid problems traveling by car, here are a few tips:

  • Get a hotel room nearby
  • Try and purchase a parking garage space ahead of time
  • Reserve time to travel

The last point is the most important. Be prepare to get to the convention much earlier than you expected so you can find a place to park and get settled to get to the convention itself with time to enjoy yourself.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - tips for a better experience
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Security checkpoints: What to do?

We live in an age of security checkpoints.

Once inside the convention center, you will likely have to go through security lines.

Leave your swords and skooma at home!

(Do bring your camera!)

Follow instructions and use common sense and you’ll get through fine.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - prepare for security

Most large conventions use walk-through metal detectors, and will commonly ask to check your bags, backpacks, and other containers.

To speed you through this process, be prepared to have your items organized in a way that makes it easy for security to take a glance.

For example, unzip pockets and open flaps to ensure that you’re not fumbling around with your bag when your turn comes up. If you’re traveling with small children with strollers, take your bags out from the stroller for the security ahead of time.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - get your badge and lanyard
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

After security you’ll have to hit up Will Call for your badge, then a lanyard, then you’re good to go up the escalator, and into the fun!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - enter the convention
Oh, this is exciting! Going up! Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Can I bring my own food and drink?

For most conventions, you can bring outside food and beverages. This is a good idea, because in-convention food prices are exorbitant!

For PAX Unplugged, yes, you can bring outside food and beverages. The gaming convention facility has a café, but if you want to save a bit of money, you can bring something to eat or drink with you.

Snacks are a great idea.

Things like cliff bars, candies, trail mix, and healthy snacks, e.g., carrot sticks, nuts, and fruit, are great to bring along for you to munch on when the hunger strikes.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - good food and drink expensive
The food cafe is well attended. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

What else should I consider bringing to a convention?

If you’re planning to stay in the convention all day long, here’s a list of other things you consider bringing with you:

  • Battery chargers – If you’re carrying your smart phone or tablet, you’ll likely need a backup battery for those times when you can’t find a convenient place to plug in your charger. This is especially important if you rely on your phone to keep in touch with your friends who are attending different events.
  • Water bottles – Sure, there are places where you can buy water (see those ridiculous prices again), but why bother? Just bring your favorite bottle or thermos and fill-up at the nearest faucet or water fountain.
  • Card games – So you’re attending a tabletop gaming convention, why would you bring your own games? Well, there’ll be lines to wait on for events, shows, panels, and other things (see further below). Card games are a good choice. They are portable, quick to deploy, and most card-games are easy-to-play quickly. More importantly, you’ll fit right in with the rest of your fellow gamers.
  • Throat lozenges (cough drops) – Not because you’re catching ill, but to sooth that soreness in your throat after talking so much with your fellow attendees and gamers. A convention hall can be a loud, noisy place, and often you’ll be speaking above normal volume. Also, these convention halls may have dry ambient air \

PAX Unplugged: the first day experience

There will be lines and a bit of waiting.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - prepare for lines and waiting

Be patient (it’s worth it!).

If you are arriving at the beginning of the first day, you’ll enter the main expo hall (with a coat check if you need to unload) and you’ll see a long queueing area as well as rows upon rows of tables. No, you cannot enter immediately!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - tables of games
Once you’re inside the convention, you can enjoy gaming with other attendees. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

If you are looking to join an event that requires a same-day sign-up (due to limited space), you must get into the large sign-up queue and be patient. The PAX organizers will not open the main floor until the entire queue has emptied. So you must line up first and be let in.

Once through, you are free to get to whatever you need to.

Pro tip: go with a couple of friends and have them hold your spot in line while one person gathers the coats and drops everything off at the coat check, which will also have a line.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - bring a friend
Bring a friend to hold your spot…or, keep you entertained while you wait. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

What event did I look forward to attending? Miniature painting, of course!

In my case, I was mostly looking forward to a miniature painting masterclass hosted by RealmSmith.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - master class events
Look at that jam-packed schedule! Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Realmsmith, founded by Jason Azevedo in 2016 with the desire to create apps for Dungeon Masters. The goal: To empower role playing game (RPG) Game Masters to guarantee a fully-immersive, well-prepared and thought-out module for their players, every single session.

I ran right for the miniature painting section of the expo hall and go into the line for the event.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - painting events
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Tickets for the miniature painting masterclass are sold the day-of-the-event (e.g., no reservations). The painting event had several miniatures to choose from that we would learn how to paint. I was able to choose between a dragon, a set of two fantasy characters, and a beholder.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - realmsmith
Nolzur’s Marvelous Tutorials with Realmsmith. Paint a beholder! Image credit: Eleni Stamos

The tickets started selling at 10am, and sold out for the day by 10:30 am. Events for the miniature painting class was that popular!

Unfortunately, even though we rushed to the line and had a decent spot in the queue, the dragon was sold out.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - miniatures
Fantasy miniatures ready for adventure and danger. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - paint this mini
Professionally painted miniatures on display. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

We signed up for the beholder class for 4 pm that day and were free to mingle until the class.


What should I expect to see in the Main Exposition Hall?

There is a lot to see!

  • Go shopping
  • Dice, e.g., all kinds
  • Dice towers and trays
  • Gaming gadgets
  • Books and toys
  • Geek and nerd novelties
  • Gaming tables and other game-culture furniture
  • Artwork
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - adventure awaits
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - gaming tables
This isn’t IKEA. Look at how cool (and pricey) these beautiful pieces are for gamers of all genres and interests. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - tabletop gaming tables
Custom tabletops for all kinds of games. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

In fact, for many large gaming conventions including PAX Unplugged, you probably won’t get to see everything even if you go for all three days.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - games workshop and citadel paint
Games Workshop with their Citadel line of hobby supplies make a strong showing at gaming conventions. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

The main hall is filled with things to do and things to buy.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - vendors and exhibitor hall
Wares and merch for sale. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

You can peruse any and every type of dice you can think of – from metal to pure gemstone to plain plastic.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - clear dice
Dice are beautiful. So much potential in such a small package. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - hefty dice
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - metal dice
Metal dice for a heavier, cold roll. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - magic dice
Magic dice for a magical time. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - precious stone expensive dice
Expensive, precious stone dice. Wow! Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - dice of all types
Dice of all colors and shapes. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Dice towers? Sure! Plastic, metal, wood, three feet tall, you name it!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - dice towers
Beautiful, clear dice towers to see every twist and turn. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - wyrmwood dice towers bespoke
Wyrmwood bespoke dice towers and other wooden gaming accessories. Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Have a look around and see if you can discover something new and wonderful for you and your gaming group.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - fancy dice trays
Dice trays. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - sound scapes for rpgs
Soundscapes for a more immersive role playing experience. Syrinscape is operated via tablet. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - dungeon tiles
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - painted tiles
Dungeon tiles for role playing games with miniatures. The paint job really brings it to life! Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - mini monk painted
Painted miniature with dungeon tile set and accessories. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - campaign module dungeon master dnd
Dungeon Master Campaign Planner “Mischief and MIsadventure”. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - d20 rings
D20 rings for sale. Also, check online. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - hobby paint holders
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Have a look at the event booklet and look at what interests you.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - PAX event booklet
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

There are live-action role playing (LARPing) events, painting events, competitions for card games, panels with your favorite podcasts and more!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - live panels
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - live event panels
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Get to each event early because there will be a line, guaranteed. The crowds are pretty friendly so it isn’t super unpleasant to wait with a lot of people.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - audience attendees at PAX
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Take the opportunity to get to know your fellow nerds, you’ll have a lot in common!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - gaming hall
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

What about board games?

In the main expo hall, you will find a vast library of board games to play.

There is a line in which you can pick from a selection of board games.

Just like a library, you sign out a game, then you head over to one of the many tables to play.

If you are flying solo or just need more people to play, there is even an Looking-For-Group (LFG) Section to pick up more people and try a new game.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - looking for group LFG
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Meet game developers, publishers, and demo a new game

Throughout the main floor, large and small game companies are set up so you can demo their game.

Many popular games are available to see and try!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - CATAN demo table
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

You can spot Catan the Board Game, Pathfinder (a role playing game), the Red Dragon Inn, etc. in large displays, fitted with gaming tables.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - buy catan

As I had heard great things about the Red Dragon Inn, but never had a chance to play, we headed over to their section.

We were greeted by one of the staff and they sat us down to try the game.

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A demo-expert then set up the game for us and briefly went through the rules.

As he laid everything out, he explained the mechanics and strategies involved.

We then played a sort of guided session, which ended after three or so rounds. It was a great experience and a great way to learn the game.

Of course, I purchased a copy immediately.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - The Red Dragon Inn

Break time: let’s eat!

Towards lunch we decided to head over to the café upstairs to take a break and get off our feet.

It’s a large area with plenty of seating, though the selection of food could be better (and cheaper). But, for the sake of convenience it sufficed.

We looked over our many…

…many souvenirs.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - gaming swag and break room
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

We chatted with fellow tabletop gamers over some decent pulled pork and chicken fingers.


The masterclass miniature painting event

We joined the Beholder masterclass to paint the Beholder miniature later in the day. It was a blast and I walked away with a painted mini! Awesome!

Here are a few photos of the event.

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - painting masterclass
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - painting students
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - teacher
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - monitor of painting
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - beholder package
Nolzur’s Beholder unpainted, primed miniature ready to paint. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - unpainted beholder
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - vallejo paints
Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - close up vallejo paints
Vallejo paints are amazing for painting miniatures. Check out the entire game color basic paint set. Image credit: Eleni Stamos
Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - Eleni painted beholder
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

The end is only the beginning: no, seriously

Near the end of the day, the main section of the expo hall closes. Night time is here.

But, this does not mean you need to pick up and leave!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - gaming all night
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Gamer’s don’t generally end their fun early. In fact, the gaming part of a gaming convention just keeps going.

Although PAX closes the shopping section (e.g., most conventions close vendor/exhibitor halls at the end of business day), they leave the open-gaming sections available to attendees.

A word of advice! Get a table section for your gaming group well before the hall closes, otherwise you will struggle to find a spot for everyone.

Some events outside the main hall will last until late-at-night so you can spend your time playing board games while you wait for the next event. Yes, events still happen after dark. The fun never ends during a tabletop gaming convention.


Final thoughts

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - Finished beholder!
Image credit: Eleni Stamos

Pax Unplugged will always provide you with an opportunity to shop for hard to find gaming accessories, introduce you to both people and games, and even teach you how to paint minis!

If you’re a tabletop gamer, an analog-gamer of any kind, e.g., board games, wargames, role playing games, tabletop gaming conventions are an awesome way to immerse yourself in gaming-culture.

For most gaming conventions, like PAX Unplugged, there’s a little bit of something for everyone, so it’s a great idea to explore your choices ahead of time and plan your time there accordingly.

Have fun and game on!

Starter Guide to Attending a Tabletop Gaming Convention - tabletop gaming convention checklist

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