What Happens at Freak Events

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If your child has just told you “I want to go to a (goth club, sci-fi con, live-action role-playing game, whatever)...” you may be wondering “And just what will be happening there?” This guide will tell you all about what goes on at practically any and every type of freak event. Note that text like this has explanatory “tool-tips”, in case you don’t recognize some of the terms used on this page. Just hover your mouse cursor over the underlined text for a moment or two to see the tool-tip.

We have writeups on a variety of different events; if the one you’re concerned about isn’t listed here, drop us a line and ask about it.

General Notes

Of course, no two events are ever quite alike. The average football game is a peaceful sporting event; 999 times out of a thousand, nothing untoward happens. But every so often, there’s a small fight, or even an actual riot. There’s a little variability in everything. This document can’t possibly be a complete, universal guarantee of what’s happening at your child’s particular event; it’s more of a general guide to what the average event is like.


Originally known as “science fiction conventions” or “sci-fi cons”, these events are now regularly just called “cons”.

Note: Since SF cons are large-scale gatherings of nearly all the freak tribes, they often host smaller “sub-events”. The average con includes at least two or three LARPs, a gaming room where tables can be found for RPGing, and possibly a “boffs” event, as well as a few dances, costume contests, and various random room parties (small parties held in convention-goers’ hotel rooms). See the links for details on RPGs, LARPs, and boffs events.

Also note that “SF con” is a bit of a misnomer, held over from decades ago when cons were originally started. At first, they catered primarily (or even exclusively) to science-fiction fans, but they’ve grown in scope over the years, and now include fantasy, gaming, comic books, animé, Medieval reconstruction, and a computer room for the geeks. The only major things you won’t find are:

Aside from that, cons have a pretty broad range of activities. Possibly the simplest is simply roaming the halls and lobbies of the hotel the con’s being held in, meeting other interesting people and admiring the creative outfits they’re wearing. (Attendees may dress as nearly anything you can imagine, from x-wing pilots to elves to ghostbusters to Klingons to mermaids to things beyond description; even those nominally in “street clothes” often have idiosyncratic and unique dress sense.)

Cons also have panels and workshops people can attend, with topics that run the gamut from interviews with major sci-fi/fantasy actors, authors, and illustrators to workshops on writing your own fiction to discussions of religious themes in Tolkien’s works.

Standard con activities also include an art show/auction, which anyone can enter — if your child’s a skilled and creative artist, he or she might actually come home from a con with some extra money! There’s usually a costume contest, which is also open to all, but generally doesn’t have cash prizes. And there’s invariably a “Dealers’ Room”, where merchants sell a plethora of items that con-goers are interested in (books, videos, t-shirts, buttons/badges, jewelry, costume items, and so on).

Cons are also hotbeds of “filk singing”, a form of folk singing in which the lyrics of popular songs are altered to refer to sci-fi and fantasy themes. Probably the best known of such filks is “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Yoda, set to the tune of the Kinks’ Lola. (If you’re not already familiar with it, you can view the lyrics of Mr. Yankovic’s song, or listen to an MP3 audio file.) Filkers also sometimes create original folk-style songs about topics ranging from Star Trek to the Dragonriders of Pern to the current space program.

Convention Room Parties

Room parties vary in “wildness factor” from con to con (and from room to room), but they’re generally pretty tame. A hotel room just isn’t big enough for people to get crazy and have a keg party. Room parties often have some sort of sci-fi or animé video playing on the room’s TV; there are sodas, chips and other munchies in varying levels of abundance, and people stand and sit around, talking about topics ranging from comics to space exploration to current events and politics.

Some room parties have alcohol in varying amounts — a minor might or might not be able to acquire some; it varies depending on the party. (Honestly, though, if your teen really wants to score some alcohol, he or she can probably find a way to do so in your own neighborhood.)

Goth/Punk/Industrial Clubs

A goth, punk, or industrial club is really just like any other nightclub; they just play different music, and the clientele dress differently. But people go there for the same reasons as they’d go to a hip-hop or ’80s club: to dance, to meet people, and to have a good time. The major difference is the music they listen to, and the way they dress.

Unless the club in question is an all-ages or under-18 club, there will probably be alcohol available. Most clubs take great care to ensure that alcohol is never served to minors, since violating the law will mean loss of the club’s alcohol permit.

Like any other club or nightspot, the venue will have bouncers ensuring that things can’t get too rowdy.

Technical Events

There are a wide variety of groups dedicated to furthering different types of computing concepts, from Mac to Linux to FreeBSD to Windows, Palm, Oracle, Autodesk, Amiga... you name it. In essence, though, these groups’ meetings are all pretty similar: they’re all about a bunch of people getting together to talk about computers for a while.

As such, they’re incredibly boring to anyone who doesn’t know the subject matter, but very interesting and fun for those who are interested in the topic. Much like a group of crocheting enthusiasts, mystery novel aficionados, or baseball fans, this meeting will be full of conversation and debate that’s completely impenetrable to any outsider, and all the actual participants will enjoy themselves immensely.

Technical group meetings are generally held in semi-public venues like restaurants, community centers, or even (in Commonwealth countries) pubs. Meetings may be free-form discussions, but more often they’ll have a scheduled speaker, who will present a talk or slideshow of some interest to the group. There may also be announcements of jobs available (or desired) in technical fields, and people will usually spend some time in unstructured discussion about computer-related topics. If food is available at the meeting site, all this will usually happen over dinner.

Software developer and author Ellen Ullman has an interesting description of a meeting of the Silicon Valley Linux Users’ Group (SVLUG), at which Linus Torvalds himself was the guest speaker. (Scroll down to the first section break for the part about the SVLUG meeting. You can also read from the beginning of her essay on Linux; it’s quite interesting and even poetic in places.)

Ren Faires

Renaissance festivals or “faires” (as they’re more commonly called) are often intended to be family-friendly events, where you could easily bring your toddler and have a good time. As such, they’re no more scary or dangerous than the average amusement park. Most Ren Faires are run as profit-making ventures, and have a good appreciation for the fact that their visitors are paying customers — they’re not inclined to let anything bad happen to your child.

Renaissance or medieval period clothing is not required to attend a Ren Faire; people can show up in modern clothing, wander around, see the sights, and simply have a good time. It’s much like going to a theme park, except the theme is “the Renaissance Era” (and the late Medieval, truth be told). You won’t find any roller coasters or bumper cars.

SCA Events

The Society for Creative Anachronism (or SCA) is probably best known for its medieval combat reenactments, in which they use real medieval clothing, real armor — and sometimes even real horses — but substitute wooden or otherwise non-lethal weapons instead of the real thing. (SCA swords are generally made of rattan; similarly soft materials are used for non-lethal maces, axes, and so on.) But while combat tourneys are the most spectacular of their activities, it’s by no means all they do.

SCA members also learn to sew complete medieval outfits — sometimes even using authentic medieval sewing techniques — cook authentic period food, sing ancient songs, play period instruments, and dance authentic medieval dances. Some learn to write calligraphed documents, even including hand-drawn illuminations. Some find interests in smithcraft or carpentry.

The Society for Creative Anachronism is a legally incorporated non-profit organization, and is well aware of the liability issues involved in combat — even mock combat. Accordingly, they will not allow minors to attend events without a parent or guardian, or sometimes a waiver form signed by such a person. They also won’t allow minors to participate in combat. Some branches may allow those who are 16 or older to participate with a parent/guardian’s waiver form, but most won’t allow it at all.

A much greater wealth of information can be found on the SCA’s official Web site.

Boffer Events

These are much like SCA events, except that the wooden weapons are replaced with “boffers” made of foam rubber wrapped around PVC pipe. These weapons are extremely safe; even a full-force swing at a completely unarmored target will generally produce no more than a bruise. Full-force swings are, however, strongly discouraged; there’s a heavy emphasis on safety and fun, and people acting in an uncontrolled manner will be swiftly pulled out of combat by the referees.

Using such safe weapons means that you don’t need heavy, bulky, and expensive armor to take part in boffs combat; the financial barrier to entry is therefore much lower. Boffs events are in nearly all ways much more informal and relaxed than SCA events; the groups that sponsor them, for example, may be nothing more than a bunch of people with a lot of foam on their hands who get together on a regular basis. Other groups are more organized, with Web sites and pre-planned event schedules. Some have ongoing storylines and characters, and are somewhat like LARPs (without the normal strictures against combat).

Also, note: these groups do not play around in steam tunnels; aside from the legal and physical dangers involved in such trespassing, there simply isn’t room to swing swords around in cramped tunnels. There have been a few cases of college kids playing around in steam tunnels, but that sort of thing seems to have died out before boffing became popular, and boffer enthusiasts prefer to meet in open fields where there’s room for a real battle.


If your son or daughter is going over to a friend’s house to play an RPG (AD&D, Vampire: the Masquerade, and the like), then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. (Note: If it’s an outdoor event, or held somewhere other than someone’s house, it may be a live-action RPG, or “LARP”; see LARPs for details on that.)

Playing an RPG involves sitting around a table for hours on end, rolling dice and talking. The worst that’s likely to happen is that someone knocks over a glass of soda and has to clean up the spill. Other than that, the kids will basically be involved in an hours-long session of collaborative storytelling: one person will describe what’s happening to the rest of the group, and the others will each describe what their reaction to it is.

It should be made perfectly clear that there’s a strong division in RPGs between the players (your child and his/her friends) and the characters (the roles they pretend to play in the game). Players do not need to have the skills that their characters do; in particular, if your child is role-playing a wizard or magician character, your child does not have to learn any actual magic. (Indeed, your child is perfectly free to disbelieve in the existence of magic altogether. His or her character can still cast spells.)

Not all games are fantasy-based. There are science-fiction games, in which characters fly starships around the universe and deal with alien races and futuristic technologies. To play these games, your child does not need to know astrogation, starship piloting, or warp-drive repair. There are comic-book superhero games, in which characters can fly, run at super-speed, bounce bullets off their chests, and see through walls with x-ray vision. Needless to say, your son or daughter won’t be learning any of these abilities.

Similarly, magical spells are not actually learned by the player. If a wizard character knows a particular spell, that spell’s name is written down on the character’s record sheet, and the player uses the spell simply by declaring “My character is going to cast such-and-so spell.”


A LARP is just like playing make-believe or cops & robbers, only with structure and rules that form a way to resolve the inevitable “I shot you, you’re dead”/“No, you missed; I’m fine” arguments. People choose roles to play, much like kids going I wanna play Superman, I’ll be Batman, etc. Then everyone acts out the roles they’ve selected — it’s essentially a big exercise in improvisational theater — or, it’s somewhat like one of those “Host Your Own Murder Mystery” parties.

Occasionally, two (or more) characters will “get into a fight”. This does not mean that the players actually engage in any form of real combat. Instead, the game’s moderators and coordinators declare a sort of “time out”, during which each player involved in the combat declares what actions they’re performing. They may demonstrate actions in slow motion. Then the moderators decide what the actual effect is (such as “you swing at him, but you miss”). Live-action game rules are very firm on the point that players are not to ever touch each other without permission.

Aside from no-contact combat, playing in a LARP involves a lot of standing (or sitting) around, interacting with other players. Plots and plans are made, alliances formed and broken, clues found and mysteries unravelled... the specifics depend on the particular game, of course. At the end of the gaming session (generally two to four hours, total), everyone steps back out of character and returns to their normal lives until the next scheduled game session. (Sessions are generally weekly or biweekly, sometimes monthly.)

Pagan Gatherings

Since a Pagan gathering is an explicitly religious event, many gathering organizers will refuse entry to minors unless they have a consent form signed by a parent or legal guardian. Many others will not allow minors to attend at all, or require that they be escorted by an adult (either their parent/guardian, or someone designated in writing by a parent/guardian). Since they’re generally held at rural camp sites, it’s easy to enforce these restrictions.

Pagan gatherings generally involve magickal and religious rituals, feasts and festivity. There are generally workshops, in which people teach classes in topics ranging from “how to play the didgeridoo” to “working effectively with the media”, as well as religious concepts like working with various deities or prayer techniques. There are usually musical performances, as well as unstructured drumming-and-dance and storytelling circles.

Most Pagan gatherings have some area that’s clothing optional (weather permitting, of course). Paganism doesn’t regard the body as shameful, and casual nudity does not automatically lead to sex.