Big Love For Little Cons

Lord Vader confronts the steampunk dealer at ValleyCon 36.

Dragon*Con. GenCon. San Diego Comic Con. Most people would agree that those are the Big Three as far as geeky conventions go, and at least one of them is on most geeks’ bucket lists. What geek in their right mind wouldn’t want to go to one of those massive geek gatherings and be surrounded by throngs of fellow fangirls and fanboys?


While as a professional in the gaming industry, I certainly hope to attend GenCon as a dealer in the near future, as a con-goer, big cons don’t really interest me. The sheer number of people and the issues that come with having a lot of people in a little space make me nervous. After reading E’s account of Dragon*Con, I’m not sure I ever want to set foot there.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t love going to cons! Little cons are where it’s at, as far as I’m concerned. So let me give a shout out to MisCon and ValleyCon, and let you all know just what’s so great about them.

Wide Open Spaces

MisCon, in Missoula, Montana and Fargo, North Dakota’s ValleyCon are both pretty small blips on the con radar. While both of them are well-established (2010 marked year 24 for MisCon and 36 for ValleyCon) and growing every year, attendance is currently at about the 700 happy geeks. Logistically speaking, this makes them far easier to navigate than a big con. ValleyCon is easily managed in a single hotel; the bulk of MisCon takes place in one hotel, with some gaming and the con dance held at the adjacent casino (though next year it will be expanding into an adjacent hotel as well).

Lines for anything at these little cons are short. Registration has always been relatively painless and quick even for attendees who didn’t preregister. Lines for the elevator are non-existent, not to mention that at Ruby’s Inn (the home of MisCon) there are only two stories to the hotel. The biggest line I’ve ever seen at either con is the one for the MisCon BBQ, and even that isn’t bad (plus there’s a cheeseburger waiting for you at the end of it).

Aside from the occasional bottleneck in front of the hospitality room, you can walk freely. You can also stop freely, to talk to someone or take a picture of a cool costume, without being run over and cursed at. There’s plenty of space to leisurely browse in the dealer’s room, and since no one is yelling at you to hurry up, you have the opportunity to talk to the vendors and come away very content with your purchase.

Yes, sometimes seats for panels still fill up before you can get in, but there’s usually standing room at the back, or even at the door. And while there is the occasional jerk who either tries to push or shove his way in, or refuses to move an inch to give someone else a little room to stand, the vast majority of people are nice and willing to do what they can to make sure everyone enjoys the panel.

Brushes With Fame

Who’s giving these panels? Surely little cons don’t get big enough names to generate any interest, right? Oh, so wrong. In the past two years at MisCon and ValleyCon, I’ve met some really incredible people, including fantasy authors Stephen Brust, Harry Turtledove (well, I almost met him), Maggie Bonham, Christine Morgan, and C.J. Cherryh; Star Wars gods Michael Stackpole and Timothy Zahn; X-Files actor Dean Haglund; and artists Tom Nguyen, Alina Pete, and John Kovalic.

And at little cons, you don’t just get a 5-second autograph signing with the guests of honor. I’ve heard a number of the honored guests refer to these little cons as “relax-a-cons” because the smaller volume of people makes for a relaxed atmosphere and gives them time to actually talk to their fans. Not to drop names, but I’ve eaten meals with Stephen Brust and Maggie Bonham, played Apples to Apples with Maggie, and had time to tell Dean Haglund the story of how the X-Files movie was my first date with my husband without getting shoved aside by other con-goers. One of my best friends found Harry Turtledove all alone at breakfast and sat down with him, and they had a great long talk. We commissioned con sketches from Tom Nguyen and Alina Pete and actually got to talk to them instead of just handing over our money and hoping for the best.

Certainly stories come out of every con of people meeting someone famous and having their 15 minutes of fame talking to them. But at little cons, many more attendees come home with those stories.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Even if you somehow don’t manage to talk to the professionals, small cons give you plenty of opportunities to forge new friendships with your fellow geeks, or rekindle existing friendships. We didn’t know anyone at our first MisCon other than the friends we went there with, but when we went back the second time, so many people remembered us, and it was a blast to reunite and catch up on the past year’s happenings. At ValleyCon, we caught up with a friend from the North Dakota town we used to live in, and he introduced us to the friends he’d brought to the con. And just like that, we made more friends! I have no doubt that great relationships are forged at big cons, too, but little cons easily make for one big happy family.

With only 700 people at the con, and only one hotel to walk through, it’s easy to meet up with friends, or keep a look-out for people you think might be there. (Conversely, if there’s someone you want to avoid at the con, it’s harder to do so than if there were tons of people. That’s the only bad thing I can think of regarding little cons!)

The Little Con That Could!

While little cons don’t have all the flair and hoopla of their bigger cousins, that doesn’t mean they can’t be just as much fun, if not more so. MisCon and ValleyCon both have all the panels, the celebrities, the costumes, the gaming, and the vendors that big cons do, the only difference is that it’s on a much smaller, more comfortable scale. They’re downright cozy and make you feel completely at home.

I’d never tell anyone to quit going to Dragon*Con if they enjoy it. But try making a little room on your con schedule for some of the smaller events. You might find you enjoy them just as much as the big dogs, and you won’t get pushed on an escalator in the process.

About c

By day, Connie Thomson (aka Ariel Manx) is a mild-mannered shoe salesgirl, geeking out about insoles, outsoles, and shanks. But when night falls, she takes her turn at the helm of 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, where she writes, edits, and does layout for table-top RPG products. Regardless of her persona, C is always a fangirl, bookworm, and craft diva. (Email C or follow @arielmanx on Twitter.)

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