Last Saturday I went to a D&D party thrown by the New York artist Ryan McGinness, part of a series of 50 parties he’s been doing weekly in his studio for the better part of a year. Here’s its flyer:
Ryan chose D&D as the theme for this party because he used to play as a kid; one of his old maps is below. Other parties were devoted to Autopsy, Mini Golf, Pictionary, and Shoot the Freak, so the series covered a lot of territory. I was introduced to Ryan afterwards by one of his friends who played at my table, and asked him what the inspiration for the 50 Parties series was. He said it was a reaction to the proliferation of parties with corporate sponsorship, where you’re always going to a party that exists to showcase the introduction of a new brand of vodka; this series was just to have fun. All of the parties I go to these days exist to celebrate eight-year-old birthdays, so there was definitely some worlds in collision here.
Another colliding world was that of the NYC Dungeons and Dragons Meetup group; Ryan’s studio manager tapped its organizer James Leivers to put together the D&D aspect of things, and (after some clarifications – no, we aren’t going to act things out LARP-style; tell people to be on time if they want to play; we need there to be enough light to read by, and not so much music that we have to shout to be heard) James invited five DMs, including myself, and a subset of the 1,300 members of the Meetup group, of whom about 25 wound up coming. I then got James’ permission to invite Chris Hagerty and Timothy Hutchings for their cross-cultural gamer/artist expertise, and nerdNYC’s jenskot and evilyn for social skill and enthusiasm as gamer-evangelists. Big ups to James for making this happen,and I’m extremely grateful for the invite and the suggestion that all the DMs run the same adventure, which I think creates points of reference between everyone’s experience that can be fun to talk about after the event.
That said, the Meetup milieu is strongly 4E focused and shaped in large part by RPGA play, and I felt both the adventure James created for us to use and the approach the other DMs took to running it reflected this background. I don’t think this is the best introduction for party people of whom 90% are new to roleplaying altogether and 10% have purple-hazy memories of playing AD&D back in the day, so I tried to balance fitting in to the Meetup framework with being more accessible to newbies. One thing I did in this regard was to draw up simplified character sheets, leaving off skills and movement speed and referring to feet instead of squares in case people wanted to play in a more freeform way:
Here’s some ideas about what went well and what I’d do differently if I were doing a D&D party again:
- Work the Door. The collision of worlds was immediately apparent in that the Meetup folks showed up on time, as you do for a RPG session, while the artist’s friends trickled in belatedly as you do for a party. This meant that the gamers were already locked into adventuring parties in mid-swing by the time the others arrived, with the result that the non-Meetup folks mostly gawked and talked amongst themselves at the bar. I think it would have worked better to have each DMs doing a high-turnover gameshow deathtrap, like the Tower of Gygax event or Jim Ward’s convention games of Metamorphosis Alpha, and to have someone (ideally in a wizard costume or somesuch) meet each newcomer and direct them to whatever DM has a vacancy. It’d help to have a handout that had a few social-level rules, like “people take turns saying what they want their character to do in the game” and “if you want to take a break from playing, you can either wait until your character dies or say that they’re going to help guard the mules.”
- Roll 3d6 in Order. Even though the pre-generated characters had ability scores already point-bought in accordance with 4E norms, the first thing I had each player do was roll up Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, Constitution, and Charisma just for descriptive value. When we eventually managed to enlist some non-gamers, one of the Meetup people who was eager to get the newbies integrated so we could get back to playing asked if I really wanted to take the time to go through this since it didn’t matter mechanically. I insisted, and felt validated when a minute later one of the party people rolled a 3 for Wisdom and the table erupted in laughter and cheers. I think that rolling your stats is fun and exciting for the same reason a horoscope is – you know it’s random yet want to see what it says about you – and that it’s paradoxically easier to get into playing a persona whose genesis is partially out of your control, because all the embarrassing mistakes that character might make don’t reflect on you personally the way they would if you were playing an idealized fantasy version of yourself.
- Choose Name, Race, Alignment, and Class. Again, in game terms only one of these “mattered” – your choice of class determined which pregen character sheet I gave you, and as those didn’t include any of the mechanics that differentiate races in 4E (which has no mechanics tied to alignment), those were as much a matter of cosmetics as your name. However, I think playing a RPG is as much about making choices as it is rolling dice, and making decisions about these four has an enormous payoff in giving you handles on how to roleplay your character, for a relatively small investment of time- especially if I’d prepped a handout with the AD&D or 3E racial “police lineup” and the chart of the nine axis alignment. Fortunately, this one was up on the 50 Parties site if folks checked it out beforehand:
(In the event, the party people created Faz the human wizard, Stickman the hobbit rogue, and Flyer the flying fighter, who was a member of some race she invented on the spot that could fly. “Chaos evil” was a very popular choice for alignment.)
- Hit Them With Choices. As written, the adventure follows a standard-in-my-experience RPGA format where you go into town and make skill checks trying to figure out where the action is. I decided to kick things off right away by having a farmer come up as the players approached the town, croak “Goblins attacking!”, and die. (Rich Rogers of Canon Puncture mentioned that he got this “the people in town tell you what the problem is right away” revelation, and used it to stun D&D players who were used to the runaround, from playing Dogs in the Vineyard. I haven’t, but it’s not unlikely I also got it from Vincent through osmosis.) This is awesome because it creates immediate, meaningful choices: do we help the townsfolk, try to find the goblin lair and raid it while they’re away, etc. When our newbies arrived I found myself doing the same thing when their turn came up: describing the situation their character was in and using it to frame two clear options they could choose between, with the example of the more experienced players showing that you could also do other stuff I hadn’t listed. I overheard one of the party people explaining to a friend that “it’s a game where he gives you choices and you decide what to do,” so this part of my method was evidently apparent.
- Say Yes to Player Input. As soon as they arrived in town, our heroes found a house with its doors boarded up. They called out to any inhabitants, and were answered by a goblin disguised as a hobbit (my favorite part of James’ adventure framework). Because they already knew how to play D&D, they kicked in the door. As I was sketching the battlemap for the house, I tried to put in as many exciting terrain elements as I could – a staircase, a chandelier, and a fireplace where a goblin had set the wall on fire while trying to toast a rat on a stick, putting a timer on the fight as the fire spread. Then I asked “What things should be in a farmhouse that I forgot?” The player of the brawler-fighter replied “A ballista,” so I said “OK, so obviously the first thing the goblins would do after breaking in would be to A-Team up a makeshift ballista. Let’s say on a 1-3 it’s where you can get at it first, on a 4-6 it’s closer to them.” The dice came up 6, so we had some exciting moments of PCs dodging ballista bolts.
- Play Rough. At one point I rolled a d6 for my own use to determine if the goblins would run or stick around to reload the ballista; it came up 6, and when I then had them still reloading it everyone with experience of the 4E monster power recharge roll was like “no, you rolled a 6, that means it’s ready to go!” So I gave in and said “By popular demand, the goblins fire another bolt at the fighter.” Another thing I added to the adventure was goblin slingers firing glass globes of a hallucinogen gas; if it hit your Will defense, you’d imagine you were in some scene from childhood. I was open to having people try to manipulate the hallucinated scene to try to achieve something useful in the combat, but much more often players chose hallucinations that would make them do terrible things: “I’m back at the old elven swimming hole, about to jump in…”, aka “Please, Mr. DM, I would like to take 5d10 points of falling damage.” This tendency for players to root for really awful things to happen to their characters was fun and should be supported!
- Make Up Rules on the Fly. I followed the 4E rules as far as they go, which is to say “in great detail about events on the six-second, five-feet scale.” But there’s a lot of scales, from the narrative to the cosmic, where you can add stuff to suit your group and the imagined situation. Playing OD&D helps teach you to use dice and invented structures to make stuff happen on those levels, and it was at this game that I really felt like I’d been able to get my head out of the low-level 4E details and realize their constraints didn’t need to limit my creativity at every other scale. In the goblin fight, two people rolled natural 1’s in a row. I said “If the next player rolls a 1, it means the Goddess Miss Fortune has manifested.” Sure enough, the next roll was a 1, so I announced “OK, at the end of each turn I’m going to roll a 1 in 6 chance that some terrible divine intervention occurs. That chance will go up by 1 for each natural 1 rolled, and down by 1 for each natural 20.” This touched off a string of awesome play, where the hay wagon that Tim contributed to the scene in order to set up an acrobatic stunt turned out to be full of contraband statues to the Goddess – apparently the goblins broke into the home of some cultists – and he decided to spend a round destroying the statues in the hopes of driving away her attentions. We decided the odds that this would work and rolled it out; lo, it was so. Q: How often do gods manifest in most 4E sessions? A: Not nearly often enough.
- Use wandering monsters. When the players – now including the influx of party people to replace some departing Meetup folks – took a short rest after the goblin fight, I rolled to see if anything would come along and whipped out my OD&D wilderness encounter chart when the dice said it would. What I got was a flyer > a pegasus, so I described a black-armored knight with a penneted lance soaring overhead on a winged horse. The players thought this was awesome in a Heavy Metal-meets-teenaged-girl’s-poster kind of way and shouted up at him. I rolled his reaction and found it favorable, so I quickly took stock of what other elements I had in play and decided that this guy was hunting the black dragon, Scather, that I’d thought of throwing in at the end. (The new players chose to enter through the dungeon that the goblins dug under the village, so we did hit both of the classic D&D elements, but folks were much more interested in flying around on pegasi than on going into a goblin-infested dungeon.) So he agreed to call winged mounts for everyone from his stables to help him search for the dragon, and the adventure went off on a tangent driven by the interaction of randomness and player choice. It proved to be fun and easy to whip up somewhere for this tangent to lead by drawing on accumulated knowledge of D&D (the players did, in fact, know that black dragons live in swamps, so let’s do that) and the 4E level of detail (let’s put in a ruined tower with four levels you can fall through, dragon babies in the basement, and goblins hiding in piles of gold, so that we’ll have a fun battlemat).
- Do an epilogue montage. Over at Delta’s excellent blog he’s been talking about how putting explicit win conditions into convention games increases player focus and excitement, and provides a sense of accomplishment to replace the level-up-and-get-new-toys reward of campaign play. I think that’d work well for some games, but in this case I’d have been sad if thinking about a game-defined objective caused players to say “let’s not ride off on pegasi, we won’t score any victory points that way.” What I did instead to create a sense of closure was to go around the table asking each player “What are you going to do with your share of the dragon’s hoard?” The answers showcased some beautifully unfettered player invention. Some were obvious, if still surprising to me. Tim insisted that he was going to be killed, since we ended with his character in a bad spot amongst the dragon babies. The player of the bard named Prince said that he would form a band of goblins and go on tour. Others riffed on random events from earlier in the game. The cleric of Pelor, who decided that her solar faith is opposed to lunar worshippers after a mention of wandering lycanthropes, said that she was going to build a giant telescope attached to a rocket, and blow up the moon.
Now that’s how I like a D&D party to end.