Bad Idea: Lottery Systems for Conventions

A thing that the conventions in the San Francisco Bay Area tend to do regarding game sign-ups is a lottery system for knowing who’s in a given game. Here’s how they work:

  • You sign up for a game, either for one game or a cascading list of preferences
  • At some point, a “shuffler” assigns everyone to a game
    • Often, before the event
    • Sometimes, the morning of the day those games are to be run
  • You eventually find out what games you’re in
    • Sometimes before the event
    • Sometimes first thing when the event goes live, for all the games
    • Sometimes very shortly before the game happens

This is seen by some as better than a first-come, first-serve sign-up solution. But for the life of me, I have never seen it executed well. This is something that’s been on my mind since I’ve been managing the Nerdly Beach Parties, where I used a modified first-come, first-serve system.

Let’s talk about the problems lottery style causes:

Inability to Plan for Far Away Conventions

When you don’t know what your plans are for a convention, driving or flying to it becomes unworthwhile. Back when the Good Omens mini-cons were lottery-based, those were the Minicons at Endgame that my Sacramento friends & I intentionally missed.

Now, at least with the Good Omens cons, we found out a week or so before what games we might be in. But that doesn’t really help those who might fly up (as some of the LA indie crowd are starting to do with the Minicons) or negotiate with significant others for a weekend road trip.

Anxiety Triggers

Ever meet someone who finds comfort in knowing how their day’s going to be? If you’ve met me, then you have. I deal with clinical anxiety, and I honestly would rather know I’m not in a game (and thus know to make my own fun) than not know until it’s too late to effectively plan around it. Thus, when I find myself at a convention that does lottery systems (which only happens at cons I’m invited to be a special guest at, since I don’t elect them on my own), I never engage with the system. I’d rather cruise around and find stragglers for a pick-up game than deal with an anxiety trigger.


If you know how many slots are in a given game, and know how many slots are left open, in a first-come, first-serve situation you can add yourself to the list if there’s space or to a wait list. But a lottery system, you can add yourself to the list, possibly kicking someone else off of the game.

When you add your name in the hopes that you’ll get into a game that’s overfull, you’re hoping that you’ll kick someone else out of a game. That’s pretty shitty.

Mismanaged Expectations

Now, sometimes you don’t know the state of a game’s sign ups, which then causes worse problems about planning — you have no idea if you’re subscribing to a very popular game where your chances of being taken are slim, because everyone’s signing up for it since there’s no information about how full it is.

A similar problem happens when you don’t report slots filled/empty with first-come, first-serve. So it’s good to always display that, regardless of sign-up scheme.

Inability to Plan for Partner/Group Participation

Maybe you and your significant other prefer to game together. Or you and some good friends that you haven’t seen in months want to get into a game together. The lottery system could fuck you on that, and then you’re left with either playing in different games, or ditching on a game you wanted to in order to hang out with your friend/SO.

And the biggest problem…

It Doesn’t Solve Organizer Headaches

Sean Nittner is the head of the Good Omens minicons. He used to do the lottery system, but this past year decided to ditch it for the first-come, first-server system that Endgame normally uses. Here was his take on it:

I tried both first-come, first-served and shuffler methods. Gamers had legitimate complaints about both of them, but the issues with shufflers hit people right in the pocketbook. Gas, hotel rooms, and restaurant food is expensive. To pay all that while attend a con where you might not get into games is rough on the wallet. The experience is also a giant disappointment, especially considering the investment in attending a con. So, I know FCFS has legitimate faults, but it doesn’t make false promises and it allows you to plan how you spend your time and money informed rather than in the dark.

Plus, FCFS is far easier to administer than any shuffler system I’ve ever seen or heard of.

There you go. It is a lot less work to do first-come, first-serve. Sure, it has its own problems, but they’re problems people know how to deal with. When you don’t get into FCFS games, it’s partly on you, because you didn’t register in time or didn’t know in time, whatever. When you don’t in a lottery system, it’s entirely the convention’s fault that your experience sucks.

No system’s perfect. But lottery systems are a holdover from back when nearly every game was AD&D or Champions or a very small number of other games, thus shuffling people into one AD&D game over another was less drastic.


Here’s a question: do you support the lottery systems? Why? Justify its existence. Tell me why it’s a good idea, and not just an archaic holdover that’s designed to punish people who want popular games.

– Ryan


78 Responses to Bad Idea: Lottery Systems for Conventions

  1. Sean Nittner says:

    It’s worth noting that Good Omens Con started as a FCFS, which we ran for two years. There were several complaints that the games filled up immediately and some people didn’t know that the registration had “gone live” until after games were booked.

    In retrospect I think the problem wasn’t the system, but poor communication with our audience. And really, in the first year of an event how is one to know who their audience is?

    But I didn’t have that wisdom then, and in my vanity assumed the problem couldn’t be my organization skills, but must be the system. All the Bay Area big cons used a shuffler and many of the GMs in Good Omens as well as our players asked for it.

    So, we tried it. And it worked, in a fashion. Games got filled up, people had a good time, but the number of complaints remained the same (if not a little more in the 4th year) and the work was tenfold what it has been before.

    Good Omens Con 5 was run with a FCFS system. We knew our audience and communicated with them frequently, and it ran great. Big Bad Con is using a similar (but more automated system) and so far I’ve very happy with that as well.

    Finally, I’ve heard so many complaints about “broken” shufflers at nearly every con I’ve seen use one. As Macklin said late at night after a Seminar “First-come, first-served can’t break.”

  2. I wonder if that’s a regional thing. No Florida con I know of has used that system in the last 10-ish years. Before reading this post I didn’t even know what Ryan was referring to.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I rarely see it outside of the Bay Area. I hear that Go Play NW is playing with this idea, which is super disappointing.

      – Ryan

  3. Vern Roberts says:

    As the RPG Co-ordinator at Kublacon, I have to say that I like the shuffler system. I am by no means saying it is perfect … but it does allow some things you just can’t get in a first come first served sign-up. It’s worth while to note here that the system has been updated to allow pre-con online sign-ups, which did not (And for some cons still does not) occur.

    Speaking strictly from my knowledge of kubla’s shuffler, it is design to ensure that the opportunity to get into a game of your choosing is spread as fairly as possible amongst all the attendees. With Kublacon’s attendee number annually hovering around the mid two thousands, this is extremely important. With a smaller con like Big Bad, or the End Game mini’s there are far fewer games & players to manage. This makes it fairly easy to get into an event of your choosing using FCFS.

    I guess the hard part is figuring out the number of players to number of games ratio to initiate that break point of doing FCFS or using a shuffler.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      On the other hand, you have very large events like Origins that don’t have this problem. Or any other regional convention I’ve ever been to — LA, Seattle, New Jersey, etc.

      And I never hear complaints as loudly as I do with the Bay Area conventions.

      – Ryan

  4. Sophie Lagacé says:

    From a purely business perspective, most conventions are held at hotels where they need to rent a certain number of rooms in order to cover expenses. Well-planned conventions usually have a deal with the hotel with progressive price breaks based on the number of rooms rented. Therefore, they have a very real interest in making the convention attractive to people who have to drive or fly a good distance — they don’t make their money from people who go back home at night.

    However, my experience with conventions as both attendee and organizer is that a majority of the people who organize the events don’t really understand how this works and often shoot themselves in the foot by making it unattractive to plan ahead for the event. This is often based on good intentions — fairness, appealing to the greater number of gamers, etc. — but ignores the practical aspects of convention management.

  5. Jason Morningstar says:

    Regardless of a lottery system’s fairness or utility, it’s absolutely fascinating to me that a regional organizational artifact like this exists. I have never heard of this model anywhere else. What a bunch of weirdos.

    I think GPNW has done some really interesting stuff with developing procedures for connecting people with games.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Yeah. I always find it odd that it’s such a die hard-regional thing.

      For Nerdly Beach Party, I have to heavily manage how sign-ups work because it’s such a small number — this year, 23. So if every one person has a crap time, that’s a significant percentage. Because of that, I have a modified first-come, first-serve, which I might outline later. (I may change it if the results are crap.)

      – Ryan

  6. Thomas D says:

    Am I understanding this correctly? A multi-day convention run like this could result in someone signing up for events in every game slot yet not getting a seat in a single event?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That has been a complaint in the past. Rare, but it happens.

      There are claims that a “good” shuffler doesn’t do that. But what sort of shuffler is a convention using? You don’t know. And, really, neither do they until it’s live-tested.

      – Ryan

    • Vern Roberts says:

      This very….VERRRY… rarely happens. It has been my experience that you will get into two or three of your first choice events. The majority are your second choice. And then one or two that are third choice. Getting into none of your top three choices in a time slot it almost unheard of. That said if you were to have this happen as the RPG co-ordinator you could come to me & I would find a spot for you to play in.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That said if you were to have this happen as the RPG co-ordinator you could come to me & I would find a spot for you to play in.

      How much time do you spend dealing with shuffler management pre-con and issues from it during the con?

      – Ryan

    • Thomas D says:

      But then you’d place them in a game that they didn’t want to play in. Although it sounds like a rare occurrence, if I’m travelling from another time zone and having to find lodging for a convention and there’s a chance that I’m not going to get in the games I want, I’ll be writing the San Francisco cons off my list.

      I remember what it felt like when most of my games didn’t go off at a local convention and I wound up not playing or hanging out with friends; the possibility of that happening after travelling 400+ miles? Screw that.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      That’s why I go down to the LA cons.

      I should say that the Endgame minicons don’t do that. And neither is Sean’s Big Bad Con (which is next month…)

      (Hint hint)


      – Ryan

    • Sophie Lagacé says:

      Thomas: Yes, it happens. For example, my husband and I have been at editions of DunDraCon, an otherwise fantastic con oriented primarily around RPGs, where even using our GM priority registration slips, we had trouble getting into even a single event we were interested in. (Note that online pre-registration for specific games was not available at the time.) We went anyway because we’re always “game” to start our own impromptu events in Open Gaming, but on a few occasions it was terribly disappointing.

      On the other hand, GMs that register bland, run-of-the-mill game descriptions (let’s be charitable and assume that the game themselves don’t necessarily suck) in overused systems are largely responsible for the ridiculous popularity of a few offbeat games. On years where we had a bazillion d20 games offering the same generic dungeon quest and I was advertising, say, a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen / Over The Edge game or a Cat game, I had no trouble filling the slots at my own table either, even if the dungeons still had lots of spots. Ryan wrote a very good post on the topic of game blurbs a few weeks ago, and I hope GMs paid attention!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Huh. I didn’t realize GMs had priority registration slips at DDC. Kinda makes some sense, though priority reg + free admission seems a hell of a deal.

      – Ryan

    • Sophie Lagacé says:

      Ryan, it’s been a few years since I last went to DunDraCon (I hope to remedy that in February), but you used to get a priority reg slip for each game you ran, plus if you ran enough hours THEN you would get free admission. But usually that meant we would get in maybe one game we wanted each, and usually we did not manage to get in the same game together. (If the game we got in turned out to be shit, it was damned disappointing!)

      One thing we got in the habit of doing was plan for a couple more characters and player spots than advertised, so we could have some flexibility in giving last-minute folks or friends a chance.

    • Dave Fooden says:

      Yep, exactly what happened to me at Paizocon.

    • Carl Rigney says:

      That happens all the time at DunDraCon, where I’ve heard many people complain about failing to get into a single game. I think it was less common last year, in which either attendance was down or they fixed their shuffler. Because DDC gives each game its own hotel room to run in (which is great) it has fewer games per attendee than some cons its size, unfortunately.

      I go to DDC to see friends and maybe run pickup games; I don’t even bother to try to sign up for games there anymore.

  7. Vern Roberts says:

    Pre-con consists only as marking the event as shuffled in the database. Onsite it is usually pretty smooth. The only real complaint I get is about waiting in line to sign up for the events. That said there will be about three or four occasions over the weekend where an attendee will complain about a shuffler related issue. These usually turn out to be that they wanted to get into a game that there are very few of over the con & have not gotten into one. I can never get enough CoC, or Paranoia games on the schedule…. D&D 3.5 is also starting to fall of in GM Support.

    • ” I can never get enough CoC, or Paranoia games on the schedule…”

      Not for lack of trying with me and the Paranoia! (Though this year I only ran Shambles).

      Sounds like next year I need to put together a “Beyond The Mountains Of Treason” 8-part CoC/Paranoia Mashup Marathon.

    • Ed Murphy says:

      I’ve never done any of the Bay Area cons (I’m in the LA area), but if Kubla specifically has a metric buttload of people wanting to play Paranoia (the one game I specifically enjoy and feel comfortable running), then I may have to seriously consider trying it next year.

  8. Alan says:

    I’ve never heard of this system before, and I don’t envy it.

    I absolutely love the system used by Intercon. Week 1 of registration, you can sign up for only 1 game. Week 2, another game. Week 3, free for all. Your likelihood of getting into at least two games you’re excited about is high. While you are rewarded for trying to sign up the moment a week’s registration opens, especially if you want extremely in demand games, in practice there have always been appealing games available mid-week 2.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Also, I removed your anchor tag. It was broken.

      – Ryan

    • Thomas D says:

      That’s a cool idea. If I were to be involved in starting up another gaming convention (or if I’m involved in RinCon 12), I’ll steal that idea from Intercon’s playbook.

  9. Vern Roberts says:

    Well shuffler/lottery or not if there are only two Call of Cthulhu games and 50 people who want into them…. the odds are not in your favor of getting in.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      At that point, you have to manage disappointment.

      I sure wouldn’t want to cause the focus of disappointment on me as the convention organizer. “Sorry you didn’t get in in time” is better than “Sorry my shuffler screwed you.”

      But I don’t expect to change the minds of long-term organizers in the Bay Area.

      – Ryan

    • Sean Nittner says:

      Yeah, I agree that issue is signup independent.

      However, not enough games to meet the player demand, was the one area where shufflers offered useful information. You can see if 50 people sign up for two games, then most likely you should be trying to recruit GMs to run more of those games.

      I’m doing that with Big Bad Con. I’ve watched which games filled up the fastest and I’m looking at getting more of those games on the schedule, but my statistics aren’t as accurate as if I had a shuffler.

      So, I do like that part of a shuffler, but I also feel like it is useful data at the expense of the customer.

    • Palmer says:

      “However, not enough games to meet the player demand, was the one area where shufflers offered useful information. You can see if 50 people sign up for two games, then most likely you should be trying to recruit GMs to run more of those games.”

      FCFS with waiting lists has the exact same effect. ANY kind of pre-reg system does this.
      Hell, even without waiting lists, all you have to do is look at what filled up first.

  10. Vern Roberts says:

    “But then you’d place them in a game that they didn’t want to play in.”

    I wouldn’t just arbitrarily say… “YOU PLAY D&D NOW!!!” I would work with the GM’s running the type of event the attendee wanted to get into and see if we could get them into one of those events. Some GM’s plan for this sort of contingency & most player groups don’t mind if one more player is at the table. I would never force either a player group or GM to do/play domething there were not comfortable/interested in.

  11. FCFS can and does break when it is poorly implemented. Anyone who has been to Conquest should be able to attest to that. If your approach to FCFS comes down to putting a sheet of paper two hours before the game with pencils and paper for anyone to sign up for anything (which was the Conquest implementation of FCFS), it fails. This isn’t anecdotal, it’s first hand. One dude signs he and a couple friends up to a game he thinks they will like, the decide they don’t want to play or bail early, and they push out players who would have been more eager for the game.

    FCFS well ahead of the event I think works fine if everyone knows when the signups are open, overlap is properly managed (not letting one guy sign up for a 4 hour game at 2:00pm and a 6 hour game at 4:00), and provided people can’t hog spots. But I think that most people here don’t mind lottery because it’s how it’s been done here for a long time. Bay Area people solve their problems with software. Even if the software makes it worse. Or when the problem is “Someone get me a latte.”

    I still inherently dislike a signup system that doesn’t at least try to account for “8 people want to play this game for 6. One of those people hasn’t gotten to play anything yet, but he’s out because he signed up last.”

    If I had my way, seats at the table would be won through physical combat.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Most systems fail more when it’s primarily on-site.

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      It also occurs to me that at the Games on Demand at GenCon & PAX, they were super successful at what was effectively FCFS. But instead of a signup sheet, there was a live person playing game matchmaker. And that kicked a lot of ass. Tables were constantly full of people who were happy with the game they got in.

      But that’s not the same as a game that’s solicited/advertised as an actual slotted convention game, which I recognize.

      – Ryan

  12. John Powell says:

    Ryan Macklin says:
    September 20, 2011 at 12:51
    I rarely see it outside of the Bay Area. I hear that Go Play NW is playing with this idea, which is super disappointing.

    Registered events and events posted at GPNW are FCFS, and we are not looking to change anything next year. Are you referring to the “donuts” and other types of lotteries we use to match up uncommitted facilitators and players at the beginning of each time block? Because we’ve always done that too, as part of our “No gamer left behind” credo. I don’t equate that at all with having a whole convention set up lottery style. This system practically guarantees that any time block you want to game, that you can. This is one of the best things about GPNW.

    That all being said, we are actually trying to figure out how we can get more facilitators to commit to running a game ahead of time, because this last year the numbers of uncommitted players was getting larger than we are comfortable with. So, in fact, we are looking to do MORE FCFS events for 2012.

    Missed you this year. Hope to see you in 2012!

    John Powell (Part of organizing committee for GPNW 2011 and 2012)

  13. Vern Roberts says:

    I will say that the shuffler was in place when I took over the the RPG Co-ordinator, not my choice or implementation. I just do the best the tools that I’m required by con management to use.

  14. So what if a shuffler was used to spread signups around fairly a couple weeks before the convention?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’d still not go, and wish anyone who attends good luck.

      – Ryan

    • Palmer says:

      For a con with significant travel, “a few weeks” doesn’t cut it.
      You plan to go to a con and do the things you want… and if you don’t know if you can, then you can’t really plan.
      Lets say you throw your name in, and 2 weeks before the event, you find out that YES, you can play the games you want, so now you’re gonna go.
      Here are the problems you face.

      Airfare rises significantly the closer you get to your travel date.
      It’s September 20th now.
      If I got to Expedia, and say Oct 27-30, from Seattle to San Fran, I get $200 fares. If I make that Sept 29 (a week and a half away), prices jump to $270.
      A 35% increase is considerable.

      It’s an even bigger deal when it comes to hotel. For a decent sized convention, the hotel block fills up well in advance.
      If you consider PAX in Seattle? Their hotel blocks (thousands of rooms spread across over half a dozen hotels) were sold out over 6 months before the event. And not even all of those hotels were ideal. My friends were in a con block hotel that was almost 15 minutes walk from the venue.
      Or a more mundane problem – the con block ends some time before the event, full or not. A local SF con here has it’s con block expire a month before the event. Con rate for rooms was $117. Regular rate is $209. Assuming it wasn’t filled already, I’d still need to book over a month in advance… before I know what the Shuffler decrees.

      Now, how about time off from work? Every workplace differs, but at my work (a bank), time off requests need to come more than a month in advance, with no guarantee. The further in advance, the more likely you’ll get it.
      My girlfriend’s work requires THREE months in advance. Anything less, they’ll “consider it, but probably no”. Small staff, very tight scheduling is the reason for that.

      Then you have group considerations. My girlfriend loves games, but has some crowd anxiety issues, and thus won’t play con games unless I’m at the same table. A shuffler pretty much guarantees that we’ll be split up, and thus guarantees she’s unable to attend.

      But now… here’s the biggest reason why “a few weeks in advance” won’t work.

      I can’t get my name in the shuffler without actually putting money down, buying a con pass and committing myself to attending before I know anything at all.

      For the record, I live in Western Canada, and have never even heard of con shufflers before this post.

  15. Wayne Coburn says:

    As a player, the shuffler works if and only if there are several games I want to play in and I can’t really make up my mind. This is especially true if most of the games are similar. The amazing thing about Bay Area Cons is that games are so diverse, and often there’s one maybe two games in a given slot I want to play in. Often my interest for a given time slot is all or nothing, and if I can’t get my first choice then I’m happy with nothing.

    I stopped attending GOCon when they were using the shuffler. For most time slots there was a single game I wanted to play, and if I didn’t get in FCFS that’s fine. But I view my time as valuable, and I’m not going to play a game simply because I was shuffled into it.

    To the point of 50 people fighting for 10 chairs, well, that’s where the Shuffler is the least fair. I’m willing to commit to a Con early, and I expect something in exchange for that. When the odds of me getting one of those Chairs is the same as someone who decided to go for it at the last minute, I’m being punished for signing up first.

    Put another way, when I buy concert tickets I’m not placed in a lottery for the front row. No, I make sure I’m one of the the first people to buy tickets. The idea that a seat at a Con is somehow different continues to baffle me, but then maybe that’s why I don’t attend Cons that aren’t FCFS.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Right. When Chris Hanrahan & I talk about this weird artifact of the Bay Area, we look at it as a holdover from when convention games were less diverse. Now, it’s very much a grognard system, confusing people who would otherwise be interested in joining the hobby.

      I used to be confused why indie games did so poorly at the larger Bay Area conventions when they do so well at Endgame. Time here watching the convention culture has shown why, and this is part of it.

      – Ryan

    • When you go to a concert, the concert doesn’t seat six. And in situations where ticket demand is high and availability is low, a lottery is exactly what you get if you try to buy them in person.

      I do agree with you that the people who commit to going early should get something for that. I think that’s important.

      My opinion is tainted by lack of exposure to cons outside the bay area.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      As, I think, most people outside the Bay Area are. Whenever people talk pro-shuffler (which I initially typed as pro-anxiety before noticing the Freudian slip), it’s always people who have tunnel vision.

      I’ve been to probably eighty to a hundred cons so far, most in the last six years. I was at twenty last year alone. Only place I see the shuffler crap is here. :)

      – Ryan

  16. tony dowler says:

    Hey Ryan, I admit I was a little mystified when I saw that you were down lottery systems, but now that I read your post, I see why. We have indeed used a limited lottery system for a single slot the last two years at Go Play NW but it’s not like what you describe in this post. It’s strictly opt-in and replaces the “donut” for one session. We basically put everyone’s con badges in a bag and randomly sort people into groups who then go play together. It has been pretty successful, but then it was never meant to be more than an optional fun thing to do.

    Occasionally, a shuffling system has been suggested for Go Play, but we’ve never found that it would be a good match for us. My personal view is that there’s no mechanical system that works well for enabling people to have fun. Rather, people need the space and opportunity to make the fun happen in their own way!

  17. Christine Lorang says:

    In my (limited) experience, shufflers allow a large number of people to get into a small number of games each, whereas FCFS tends to result in smaller number of motivated people getting a larger number of games each. Therefore, while FCFS would result in a higher-quality con experience for those that get in, I still have some problems with FCFS and I’ll try to outline them without killing too many pixels.

    My first con was DunDraCon, and so I used to think of shufflers as the norm that required a justification to change. I didn’t have anything against FCFS, but I assumed that it was a thing for smaller cons that couldn’t justify the extra time or expense to code or buy a shuffler. It wasn’t until I heard the complaints from others that I started seeing how the shuffler might be contributing to some of my negative con experiences.

    I missed out on Good Omens Con for many years because I was too disorganized to sign up in time. I didn’t resent this at all, since it was clearly my own fault. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I finally got into GO con this year that I started to complain about FCFS. My own experience was flawless: I had my list ready, I filled and submitted my form within 20 seconds of registration opening, and I got into every single one of my first choices. Great, right? But a friend of mine who was, at most, 30 seconds behind me missed out on a game that he really wanted. I don’t think my extra-fast typing fingers and high-speed internet connection was sufficient reason for me to get the jump on him.

    The problems with FCFS are:
    1) It disadvantages those who have a legitimate reason not to be glued to their computer the moment registration opens.
    2) It can result in a Ticketmaster-type problem where the system is overloaded by too many users at once.
    3) Most FCFS systems open less than 3 weeks before the con so you’ll probably need to commit to hotel and travel reservations, time off work and so on before you know if you can get into any games at all.

    On the other hand, FCFS has been working great for Big Bad. There are so many great games to choose from and most of them still have openings. So FCFS doesn’t really break down until you have a large number of people competing for a relatively small number of spaces.

    If I was somehow allowed to choose my ideal signup system, I would probably do a very simplified shuffler with only one choice per time-slot and no fancy “weight” system, plus the ability to see how many people were competing for a game so you could move into a less-competitive game if you wanted. Run that shuffler at least 2 weeks before the con, and let everyone sort themselves into the remaining spots on a FCFS basis after that. I acknowledge that it would still put a lot of wear and tear on the con organizers, but hopefully the much simpler code that results from a lack of weights or 2nd and 3rd choices would help reduce the headaches.

  18. JDCorley says:

    Shuffling is garbage, I wanna play what I wanna play, you don’t decide for me, get out forever.

  19. Eric Lytle says:

    I’ve been reluctant to attend the local(SF Bay) cons because of the shuffler. They have been very intimidating for me. I usually only want to be in one or two games per session and don’t really see how the shuffler benefits me at all. I have mostly just played in open gaming areas at cons and board games because of the shuffler systems. At national cons like Origins and GenCon I pay for the games I want to be in and play scheduled FCFS games all con long. I feel I’ve got to weigh in against the shuffler system.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      As an outsider, it’s pretty unwelcoming. Especially if you’ve had any other convention experience.

      – Ryan

  20. John Taber says:

    This thread is pretty interesting to me. I have been to primarily Bay Area conventions for many many years (I was at DunDraCon IV) and they are all shuffled or weighted/shuffled. I didn’t actually realize that large conventions in other locations are done first come first serve like some of the mini-cons around here. Maybe it is because that is what I am used to but I have never had an issue with that system. Most systems are weighted so that if you don’t make it into a game you have a higher chance of making one on the next ticket. It just feels fairer to me…again…might be because that is the method I have seen.

    I’m also not sure what would happen if I signed up for several con games and did not get in. It might bum me out before I even show up…dunno…interesting comments… :)

  21. Christine Lorang says:

    When you have 10 or more people signing up for a 4-person game in the first 2 minutes of registration, it amounts to a de facto shuffler, but with weight applied to strange variables that you have no control over.

    I’m not exactly pro-shuffler, but I’m made pretty darn anxious by sitting at my computer pressing the refresh button like a hamster waiting for a food pellet that never comes.

    Is there some reason why those who only want one game in a shuffler system can’t just leave their second and third choices empty? How is that materially different from being 30 seconds late in a FCFS system?

  22. Renee says:

    At BayCon, when we have scheduled game sign-ups, they are all first come, first serve, with a main sign-up list and an alternate sign-up list. When the time of the game rolls around, if people on the main list don’t show, we go down the alternate list to fill those empty spots. When people put their names on the alternate list, our staff makes sure it is crystal clear to them that it is likely they will not be able to participate in that game.

    This is easiest to manage since we are a single department of a con that covers a far larger range of interest than strictly gaming. So far, it has worked out well. Mind, it’s probably a lot more labor-intensive than a larger con might want to deal with…

  23. I think the number of comments in this thread drive me to one thought “damn, legacy is a bitch.”

    Working behind a retail counter at a game store you get to be the bartender for a lot of people who bring a lot of their complaints with them about related subjects. One of these is always about the regional cons we have locally. What’s being voiced in this thread is something I hear in person, a lot right after one of the cons. Macklin mentioned above how he and I have managed to attribute a lot/a majority onto legacy systems put in place back when these cons were started _years ago_. 33+ years ago when people were first signing up for games at DundraCon, there wasn’t as much issue being shuffled into one of the other games of D&D. You were getting a similar experience to what you were looking for, and hence all good. As time and choice have progressed, I personally find this style of system much more of a barrier than welcoming.

    I really had no idea how differently as a collective the Bay Area was rocking it’s regional game sign-up strategy, but it makes a ton of sense. The local con scene is/has been made up of a pool of the same people sharing the same methodology for years. It’s always been a bit of a bummer for me to see everyone doing the same dang thing without much eye towards the future. But hey, if they are making their money, then ultimately, voting with your dollar is one safe way to go….

    • Sophie Lagacé says:

      “I think the number of comments in this thread drive me to one thought “damn, legacy is a bitch.””

      Oh yes. When my husband and I first started getting involved with various conventions — including ones where we ended up backing away slowly and never making it onto the staff roster — we were stunned to discover the level of grognarderie. A lot of answers are “No!” by default to *any* proposition for the slightest change or novelty, and a lot of answers to “Why?” are “Because we’ve always done it that way.”

      Now, I have a lot of sympathy for “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but we also have to recognize that technology changes, games change, gamer expectations change, economic constraints change, etc.. Even if something worked in past years, the idea of re-examining the procedures and events periodically for better ways of doing things should not be so frightening.

  24. Dave Fooden says:

    This was my first year attending Paizocon, and they use a lottery system—plus, you only find out what games you get into when you arrive (that may have been a server error, the website wouldn’t show me my schedule, probably because it didn’t exist). I pre-reged early, and carefully sorted through all the events I wanted to play in, ranking them according to my preferences and making sure to pick 2 alternates and a favorite per game slot…and I had gotten into ZERO games. None at all, for the 8 game slots in 2 days I was attending.

    Now the staff were very understanding and, without my asking, refunded my admission fee, and I was able to get a seat at the table for the Forgotten Realms game run by Ed Greenwood (awesome), but if it has a lottery system next year I will not be back. Nor will I attend any con that uses a lottery system, I’m completely soured on the experience. Fortunately, the con is local-ish to me (about an hour on the bus), but if I had flown in somewhere and found out that I didn’t get into any events whatsoever because of a lottery system, I’d have been furious.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Damn. I mean, while getting into a game with Ed is pretty awesome, yeah, I would have been soured by that, too. In fact, it’s because I’ve watched other people be soured by shufflers that I avoid them. (I also don’t like GMing in those cons, and only do if I don’t realize it’s a shuffler system.)

      People who defend lottery systems would dismiss your experience as a “bad shuffler.” To that, I say: How can anyone paying for a ticket to your convention tell the difference between a “good” and “bad” one.

      We can’t. And rarely can the organizers tell, either, until it’s too late. :/

      – Ryan

  25. Tom says:

    I think FCFS is more honest.

    Defending the shuffler system for larger cons because FCFS won’t work for larger cons is basically a function of this reality: There are more people than there are slots…*far* more people than there are slots, in fact. So, rather than letting people know the reality of the scarcity factor of getting into a number of games, we convention organizers would rather have people pay their money and come to the convention based on a *chance* of getting into a number of games. To me, it seems like the underlying reality is larger conventions are banking on people paying money based on a perceived reality, and then being given a far less desirable reality when the dust settles.

    I simply don’t attend larger cons any more. It isn’t worth it to me to plunk down a reg fee, get a hotel room, pay for hotel food, and run around like a chicken with my head cut off to, perhaps, get into a single game through the registration process the whole con. Nor do I enjoy trying to crash games, which often involves showing up one or more hours early with a gaggle of other desperate faces, hoping to be let in and then finding out you just spent your time waiting for no reason.

    Sure, you can crash some games in open gaming. You can crash some scheduled games by waiting around and hoping someone doesn’t show up. But you have no way of knowing how much of your convention will be centered on those activities before you’ve committed. For some people, that works. For me, it does not.

    Then again, FCFS has convinced me not to attend smaller cons, too. Say, if I get in one game at a Minicon and it’s a drive to get there. But at least I’m being informed of the reality that awaits me. And me, being the kind soul that I am ;), try to inform smaller cons *immediately* if I won’t end up attending, thus freeing up my slot to perhaps make attending more attractive to some other soul.


  26. Tom says:

    I think the model of FCFS coupled with an up front *payment* would be best. Then you don’t have people trying to game the system, hogging slots they aren’t going to use and pushing people out when they have no intention of attending every game they get into. Something with a timed opt out and a payment required up front to hold your slot (in case you get into more slots than you want or can afford). Drop the reg costs, and supplement it with payment for slots.


    • Ryan Macklin says:


      That gets messy with small conventions, e-commerce, micropayments & transaction fees, etc. You’d honestly see an increase in an individual’s cost of a con if that model were used. It also causes issues with on-site payment unless you have an infrastructure set up for that in parallel to badge payments.

      That works at Endgame, because of their model, that you pay at the store, etc.

      – Ryan

    • Sophie Lagacé says:

      I have attended only one convention with the per-per-slot approach, Origins in San Jose (1994), which was organized by Andon Unlimited, a subsidiary of WotC. I hated the system passionately, and so did everybody else I gamed with at the con. (Interestingly, Andon also succeeded in pissing off all the companies they worked with at their conventions, including GenCon, before disappearing from the scene.) Our experience, at least in this form, is that we got no more certainty for getting into good games, and felt cheated to have to pay the same for good and sucky games.

      Of course, an added complication is that there was *also* a convention fee AND Andon offered GMs incentives by giving them a small cut per player (I think it was $5 a head) rather than offering comped convention fees. As a result, many GMs churned out low quality games for large groups in order to cash in. I suppose it’s possible to implement a pay-per-slot system that would be less frustrating, but I’ve been burned out on the approach and would be very mistrusting of such a convention at first glance.

    • Alan says:

      Sophie, circa 1994 $5/player/4 hours would be amazing pay for GM at a convention, especially since event tickets were running around $4/player/4 hours.

      Assuming Gen Con as a model, as it’s the convention I’m familiar with, trying to “make money” as a tabletop GM is madness. Even with 8 person tables, you end up running for 16 or more hours to get comped a badge and hotel room (which you typically have to share). Financially it’s a waste of time. A more reasonable GM running just 2 sessions, even with an 8 person table, is typically getting nothing. (Noteworthy exceptions: 1. Bad LARPs, 1 GM, 30 players, are pretty profitable. Sadly, I’ve played in them. 2. You can charge more per hour for your game and you take everything over the base. But your high prices will stick out as unusual in the listings.)

      I think the above, that it’s a bad investment of one’s time, is part of why people aren’t bothered by the per-event prices. You don’t view it as going to a greedy GM, it’s going to the convention and you just factor it into your cost to attend. I’ve never felt ripped off when I played a bad game at Gen Con (and I have). I was far more angry at the waste of my time than the money. This was true even back when I was a student and Gen Con was something I had to carefully budget for.

  27. Tom says:

    And I had a DDC experience in which my son and I went through half the con with not a single game from the shuffler after making three choices for every slot. We each got one game late in the weekend, I think. And the convention organizers were nice enough to let us attend one event with priority after I explained to them our predicament (and it was actually a good game, too.) But it almost turned my son off to gaming and conventions. Which would have been a shame because at 17 he’s a better roleplayer than I am now and an asset to the hobby, IMHO. (Ryan, you played in a game with Patrick and I at a minicon? With the alien dream world and the giant mechas? Damned if I can remember the name of the system, now, but it rocked as did the GM and players!)

  28. Tom says:


    “That gets messy with small conventions, e-commerce, micropayments & transaction fees, etc. You’d honestly see an increase in an individual’s cost of a con if that model were used. It also causes issues with on-site payment unless you have an infrastructure set up for that in parallel to badge payments.

    That works at Endgame, because of their model, that you pay at the store, etc.”

    True. But I’d be willing to pay more for FCFS with upfront payments.


  29. Vern Roberts says:

    The reality is you can’t please everyone all the time… The cons that use a shuffler do it for a reason. Same thing for the ones that don’t. Kublacon is not a “large con” but it’s not a “small con” either. Speaking as an organizer & the RPG Department Head for Kubla, I want you to get into as many of your first choices as you can. Which is why our shuffler is weighted so that if you don’t get in your first choice in one slot your odds in the next slot got up.

    We in no way are attempting to erect a reality distortion field, baiting and switching con experiences out from under our attendees. We do however get enough people that we want to do our best to ensure that everyone gets their chance at playing their first choices. A couple of years ago I ran the annual Mega Dungeon Crawl as a FCFS event… It was a NIGHTMARE. The lines for the sign-up sheet were ridiculous. People where constantly hounding the reg desk for “When will the sign-ups for the next slot be up?” People who flew in specifically for that event & did not get in were less than thrilled (We refunded their con admission BTW). Our shuffler just seems to work for us… That may not be your preference of sign-up method but we have an 11 year track record of very few complaints in total.

    I’ll go on record now & say that I do not like the “East Coast Con” method of charging for admission, and then charging AGAIN for tickets to get into an event. There is a reason that even Disneyland doesn’t do this anymore… It’s ridiculous. It’s expensive enough to get to the con, get a room & pay for admission & food for the weekend. Charging for each event is just too much.

    • Tom says:

      Your anecdote isn’t a good reason that FCFS doesn’t work. It’s a good reason why *real time* FCFS doesn’t work. If people had signed up weeks or months before the event, all the problems you list wouldn’t have occurred.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’ll go on record now & say that I do not like the “East Coast Con” method of charging for admission, and then charging AGAIN for tickets to get into an event.

      That’s not “East Coast”, that’s 10+ thousand attendee cons. Most East Coast cons are regionals, like everywhere else. So don’t go getting those confused. :)

      (And GenCon & Origins are in the Midwest, not East Coast.)

      – Ryan

    • Michael Garcia says:

      At Kubla, once the shuffler was online and working I managed to get into 4 of my second choices and two of my first choices which is pretty good. Unfortunately, two of those games were HORRIBLE, but that is not the fault of the con so much as a learning experience for me as a player. The same thing occurred with my wife and we generally had a positive experience.

      Dundracon was a lot more problematic with its shuffler. Twice I could not get into any games and when I brought the problem up, the response from the staff was that’s too bad. That was couple a years ago and I hear things have changed since then, but that was an awful experience to endure.

  30. Jason Morningstar says:

    To put it in perspective, I went to my first Dragon Con (Atlanta, insane) this year and they have a similarly calcified, outmoded game allocation system, but their is even more crazy. It’s the way they have always done it, so what’s the problem right?

    They have a dedicated “marshaling” room (on a different floor from much of the gaming), and if you did not pre-register you pretty much don’t play. I’m a gaming fool and I managed two games all weekend.

    Ryan, I’m surprised you don’t take a Barcamp model to Nerdly Beach Party – for Camp Nerdly (the original and greatest of all time) everyone is required to bring *something* prepped and ready to run, and we hash out each day the same morning.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      There are specific slots that are purely self-organize. But people also like a sense of expectation. So, we’ve done both. And instead of someone saying “I can run Dungeon World!” and getting 15 people interested (which is what happened this time), I can manage a bit to smooth that over.

      It’s not perfect, and it does cause me some grief, but we like the end result. It’s definitely not something I would attempt to do beyond 30 people, though.

      – Ryan

  31. Tom says:

    Your anecdote isn’t a good reason that FCFS doesn’t work. It’s a good reason why *real time* FCFS doesn’t work. If people had signed up weeks or months before the event, all the problems you list wouldn’t have occurred.

    • Vern Roberts says:

      That’s very true, but without access to the webserver & blessing from the con producer it was all I had available. The idea was to allow for drop ins when someone missed sign-ups for the slot for some reason. Suffice to say it didn’t work

    • Tom says:

      Yep. Poor organization seldom works, no matter what the method. Not to say you weren’t gallant for trying to make it happen despite your lack of access. Sometimes, you just have to roll with the punches and try to make something happen despite limitations.

      And, granted, I have had much more success with Kubla’s shuffler than other shufflers at other local cons, so I think you’re doing it as well as can be done. I just don’t like the system for the reasons I listed.

      And, again, if FCFS led to people “hogging” slots they didn’t intend to use, I’m fine with paying extra to reserve a slot. For me, that’s a minor cost when you factor in time, lodging, transportation, and food. Like any cost increase, people tend to be more emotional than practical when it gets right down to it. How much are you going to spend to attend a con outside of your immediate area? And how much is it worth to you to ensure you have a fairer and better way of getting into the games that you want to get into and to know what games you’re getting into up front? Considering the prices at cons that do charge for slots, I don’t think any con even comes close to pricing those slots prohibitively given those considerations.


  32. walkerp says:

    First of all that shuffler system has got to go. It makes absolutely no sense.

    Second, I am surprised by all the cons that still rely on on-site sign up. That also seems crazy. We’re small here in Montreal, but we’ve had a web-based system with online game registration right from the beginning. GMs have a date limit to put their games in and they slowly fill up. What happens is that if one type of game fills up really quickly, either because the GM or the system is popular, it often spurs that GM to open up another session or another person to run a session of that popular game because they see that they will have players.

    Conversely, if a game doesn’t fill up at all, then the GM can cancel it or join forces with another GM doing a similar thing.

    We only have on-site sign-up for the remaining available slots. We find the system works so well that we have started using it for our one-day minicons, which are so small that we could probably just organize the games on the forum. You can see an example here (about a month ahead of the actual date):


  33. teh ebil bunneh says:

    I’ve been spoiled for years by the Denver gaming cons. Online registration, which opens a couple of months before the con. Each game gives you the number of slots still open (for instance, “3 of 6 seats open”). You can’t sign up for games until you’ve registered for the con, and you can drop games if you decide not to play (up until about a week before the con), which opens that slot up for another player. And it’s not like the Denver cons are tiny — I’m told that Tacticon gets 7-800 people, and Genghis Con gets around 16-1800.

    The one (and only) time I went to Dundracon (we flew out there), I kept trying to get into games. I’d sign up for one… and fail to get it. Finally, someone told me that my best odds were if I added a second and third choice per slot. Finally I got into a game — my third choice, which I really didn’t want to play, I just needed something to fill out that space on my ballot. Worst con experience I’ve ever had (and that includes the con where I got the flu and spend the whole weekend in my hotel room). Never again.

    I’ll take the Denver system on its worst day over Dundracon on its best day.

  34. Alan says:

    If you are the sort of person who is up for almost anything, the system doesn’t matter much. The “we’ll figure out on site” is probably best, as you can group people together by interest and juggle things to fill tables. Games on Demand works quite well.

    If you care very much what you play, FCFS’s advantage is that you know what you’re getting into. If you don’t like what you get, you just don’t attend or look to make your fun elsewhere. To work best, you need registration early enough so people can still plan for travel and lodging after event registration. Gen Con as a whole works quite well. Intercon’s modified FCFS helps limit the “I can be online the minute registration” opens well.

    I’m not seeing where lottery/shuffle works well. The up-for-anything people will be reasonably happy, but the shuffle is less likely to fill events evenly. The focused people will be happy when they win, but very frustrated when they lose.

  35. Madeline F says:

    Came here from the twitters!

    My main issue with Bay Area cons is overlapping games that wreck your ability to plan your day. Quite often you’ll have something like: 4 hour game that starts at 9; 4 hour game that starts at 1; 6 hour game that starts at 5… And then at the same con, 8 hour game that starts at 10. WTH? Is that 8-hour game better than three other games? Why would they do that to that GM? Why would they do that to us potential players?

    That’s why I skipped Celesticon. I actually talked to a couple of the people at the Celesticon table at Kublacon about this. “Well, um, people like to have breaks for lunch…” So make all the slots 6 hours, or something, and if people want to have a lunch break they can aim themselves at a 4 hour game that starts at 9, and then still have the same ability as anyone else to do the 6 hour game that starts at 3. “There are several of us that think like you do, and we may well have slots for games…” But then they didn’t, and it wasn’t for lack of better options. Sheesh.

    Mangled timing exacerbates the issue of unknowable scheduling. If you’re only getting into games for half of the opportunities, why would you even look at a game whose timing has it sprawling all over the schedule? If you miss getting into that game, your entire day is wasted.

    My experience with getting in to games at the lottery Bay Area cons is that I land some game about half the time, and half the time I have nothing to do. It’s kind of ridiculous, but I suppose they just don’t have enough GMs. I’m not inclined to GM, in part, because of the lack of proper slots: would I be one of the suckers jammed into some hopelessly awkward time?

    My impression was that the system evolved to allow for people who show up the day of the con, and also to cater to determined standby people who take the spots of flakes. But even for that, it’s not ideal… Why isn’t there a tech solution to the method of telling you whether or not you’re in a game, which is currently “a bunch of unordered printouts with tiny print taped to a wall behind a table”? Sheesh, Kublacon required my email address, why didn’t they then email me every time they determined if I was or was not in games? Why only three slots of possible preferences, when I could probably have ranked the whole gamebook? I go to meet people and try new stuff, so I’m fine with getting into mediocre-looking things. Not everyone who runs a great game can write a great blurb.

    The best experience I’ve had with scheduling is at the Ambercons in Portland and Detroit. Pretty much everyone who is going puts their money down, and then the organizers harass people until there are enough games being run to cover all the attendees. Signup is modified FCFS: with lots of warning, the signups go live on a date, and everyone who signs up within 24 hours gets equal first rights. (There are people from England who come, so a single time is even less fair). Ties are broken with “are you GMing” and “do you have a lot of first choice games in other slots, or are you getting kinda screwed” and “did you specifically request this game of all possible games at the con”. But it does take a few days of work to massage this, so I’m not sure if it would serve for cons bigger than 150-some people.

    • Sophie Lagacé says:

      Dragonflight in Seattle has a nice time block system that seems to work pretty well. Time blocks are two hours long and are buffered by half-hour periods until midnight, something like this:

      Time Block A: Friday 2-4pm
      Time Block B: Friday 4:30-6:30pm
      Time Block C: Friday 7-9pm
      Time block D: Friday 9:30-11:30pm
      Time Block E: Friday midnight to Saturday 8am

      Saturday starts again with Time Block F at 9am, and so on. So if I’m running an event, I can pick time blocks C and D, for example, and run my game from 7 to 11:30pm (or end earlier in the last time block, usually indicated in the game description.) This means there is always a cushion of time between events to catch a meal, sign up for other events, check in with friends, etc.

      At first I didn’t see the big difference with other conventions, but I have to say I have been convince over the years. There is much less difficulty with overlaps, games tend to be more in sync and people actually take breaks.

      Dragonflight’s Larry White also created a database system that allows online signups so you know if you got into the games you want early on. As I recall, two-thirds of the spots are allowed to fill up FCFS online, and the balance are offered for signup at the convention, also FCFS, two time blocks before the actual event time. We also make an effort to flag continuously running events in the schedule, so attendees know where they can drop in if they have some time to kill.

      I have to add that Dragonflight in a smaller con, in the 600-700 attendees range, with about equal focus on board games, RPGs, and miniatures games plus a few LARPs and seminars. Overall, I’ve grown to like this time block system a lot.

  36. JDCorley says:

    I’m shocked to hear that big cons don’t have enough slots for the players. Why not pay GMs to run games if you don’t have enough for a good experience for all the players? Increase your GM discount, or just comp GMs in, or pay them.