Posts Tagged ‘beginners


New “Red Box” in the Works

Looks familiar?

Wizards of the Coast has announced a new introductory boxed set for 4E. As you can see from the picture, the boxed set is red. And according to WotC’s twitter feed, they’re calling it the “Red Box.” (You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.)

What does this mean for old-school players? Possibly some confusion over the term “Red Box” in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe even a lot of confusion. What happens when you advertise a Red Box D&D game, expecting people of an old-school persuasion to show up, and you get players who’re expecting to play Fourth Edition? (Or vice versa?)


Running a Con Game pt. 3: Blurbs

Time for more advice on GMing a RPG at a convention! In previous installments I talked about figuring out what you want to get out of it and coming up with titles for your events. This post will cover writing the blurbs that will describe your games in the convention’s program book.  I’ll use the ones I did for Anonycon as examples, and then try to extract some general guidelines for good blurb-writing – which will also start to cover advice about the content of the adventures you’ll run, since that’s what the blurbs describe.

First up is the blurb for Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan:

Your band of adventurers accidentally destroyed the world. So far, only you know that in a few days everyone on the planet will die horribly. Your hasty research into ancient lore suggests that an escape route may be found in the depths of the legendary pyramid of Tamoachan. Can you fight your way through a dungeon full of poison gas and the relics of ancient civilizations, or will you die a little ahead of everyone else?

NOTE: The story of this adventure is loosely connected to “Swords and Star-Tribes,” “Battlefield Oerth”, and “War for the Starship Warden.” Players are welcome to sign up for all of these events, or just enjoy this one on its own.

6 players, AD&D 1e. Characters will be provided. No rules knowledge necessary.

Start with a bang. A good blurb will catch the reader’s attention within the first sentence. It doesn’t have to be as literal a bang as the destruction of the world, but it should be surprising, exciting, and quickly get across the essence of  the game – in this case, high-powered, light-hearted wahoo adventure.

Offer a unique experience. A long-form RPG campaign allows for lots of things like character development and sandbox world-building that you can’t do in a convention game where you’ll only see the players for a handful of hours.  Your adventure should take advantage of the things you wouldn’t do in a regular campaign, like destroying the game world! Some of my favorite unique possibilities of a con game, like designing the pregen characters’ Vancian magic to exactly dovetail with the challenges of the adventure, or making their individual goals into a shaped charge set to self-destruct at the end of the session, can’t be advertised in a blurb without giving it away. But you can and should say right up front that the PCs are going to be rulers of warring magocracies , or waking up naked in prison, or whatever other scenario that would be awesome to play once but too difficult to manuever campaign PCs into or unwieldy to sustain in regular play.

Is this game part of a series? Most convention games are one-shot affairs.  If that’s not true and you’re running a multiple-round tournament or a series of tightly-linked games where it’s important that players who were in one session come back for another, be sure to let people know so they can schedule accordingly! Many cons will have a pull-down menu or something you can use to say “this is a tournament,” but it’s still a good idea to explain the details of what you expect in your blurb. The loosely linked series I describe in this note is something I haven’t tried before. The idea is to let people who like one event come back for more, without turning away people who can’t schedule them all (a problem that often keeps me from playing in tournaments). We’ll see how it works!

What do players need to play? Most cons will ask you to specify whether all levels of experience with the game system are welcome and if players need to bring anything, and some will ask whether it’s suitable for all ages. It’s a good idea to provide that info even if the con doesn’t ask for it, because players want to know if they qualify for an event and you want to have people show up who are ready to enjoy the game the way you want to play it. You generally don’t need to specify that players need dice, pencils, and paper (although you should bring extra of each just in case). Even if your blurb says that players should bring their own characters, it’s a good idea to have some pre-generated ones available. Personally I’d say that unless you’re playing a game where group interaction is necessary to the character-making process, your limited time at the convention is better spent on playing than making the PCs you’ll need to play. I have already self-administered the censure necessary for disagreeing with Gygax on this point. I also think that it’s better to run events that are open to newbies, because it’s fun and worthy, but you should be sure that you actually are ready to help people who don’t know what they’re doing & aren’t trying to achieve something like playing a mechanically complex system or a conceptually sophisticated scenario where inexpertise would be disruptive.

Next blurb, for Swords and Star-tribes:

You are the Captains of the Crossed Swords, and your might, mutations, and wits have conquered all the lands you know. But the hawkoids from the vent in the sky-vault tell of new conquests. You have long suspected that there are many other lands layered above and below. And you’ve heard heretics whisper that your world is truly a vast ship traveling from one ball of gas to another. But what does it mean that “the Warden has landed”?

Playing this game will let you be a... Part of the appeal of RPGs is trying out new and exciting roles, and one reason to go to conventions is to experience characters and situations you wouldn’t normally. A good blurb quickly gets across to the reader who they’d be if they played this game, and hopefully makes it sound appealing. For traditional party-based games, I like to get across the idea that the PCs will be part of a cohesive unit; it saves time at the table explaining “your guys have  already been on many adventures together.”  Company of the Crossed Swords isn’t all that attractive (I was stuck thinking of a party name and so stole one from the Glantri campaign ) but who doesn’t want to be a conqueror possessed of might, mutations, and wits? I like to flatter the players with blurbs of the “your awesomeness will crush stars under your heel” variety. However, James’ famous line “This is the story of a gang of insanely greedy, stupid, merciless cowards trying to bullshit their way to a wholly undeserved victory” would also be a great blurb because it tells you right there who you’re going to be, and if it doesn’t sound like fun you’re probably not the player for that event!

End with a challenge!? The idea here is that the last sentence of the blurb is a personal call to action. Will your superior playing skills prevail, or will this infamous dungeon TPK another lot of pathetic losers? I dare you to preregister for this game and find out! Using all that dramatic punctuation is kind of a cheap trick, but I do it all the time anyway. Subtle refinement and RPGs don’t mix.

Next blurb,  Battlefield Oerth:

Your fellowship of heroes were the only ones to escape the hideous fate that befell your world. But do you have what it takes to survive an environment where metal walls talk and pigs can fly? In the spirit of D&D classics like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, in this adventure you’ll pit your swords and spells against robots and ray-guns. The future of more species than your own is yours to decide!

“It’s like Jaws, in space”. A blurb is like a high-concept movie pitch. You’re trying to sell someone on an unknown quantity. Pointing out how it’s like something they already know and love (e.g. Barrier Peaks) can help get your idea across. I think I used this technique for this blurb because I was insecure about how the fantasy/science fiction hybrid and wanted to point out its Gygaxian pedigree.

Highlight the cool. If your game has swords, spells, rockets, and rayguns, put that in the blurb! (Contrariwise, if the title of your event seems to promise something you won’t really deliver, this is your place to set people straight.) I’ve talked a lot about attracting players to your event, but ultimately you don’t want just any players. Getting the ones who’ll dig the kind of game you want to play also means repelling the ones who won’t. One accepted way to do this by specifying that players are required to have experience with the game system, because that way you can filter out the ones who don’t know yet that they won’t like the kinds of thing that system aims to deliver. Other than that, though, I think that if you try to use your blurb to describe the kinds of people who shouldn’t sign up for your event you’ll just look like an asshole. Highlighting the cool helps get the right players in both directions. The more I express my enthusiasm for mixing swords and rockets, the more people who think that’s lame will know not to sign up. If I don’t mention this central awesomeness, I’ll both fail to attract people who like that kind of thing and run the risk that some of the people who do show up will be dismayed when I spring it on them.

Last blurb, War for the Starship Warden:

Defend your home against invaders from Oerth! As long as you have charges left in your disruptor pistols, robots at your command, and the mental ability to drain energy from living organisms, the outsiders don’t stand a chance. This free-wheeling adventure uses the framework of the 4E rules to create a high energy mashup of the world’s first fantasy and science-fiction RPGs. Will it be you or your enemy who sets the next destination for the Warden?

Set the stakes. Even if they’ll only actually play in your world once, players want to feel that their actions will have lasting consequences. Unless you’re  in an organized play league like the RPGA, a one-shot convention game can’t provide the usual markers of change over time in a campaign like the steady accumulation of experience points (although I’m always surprised how often players nevertheless ask “How many XP did we get?” at the end of a con session). What it can offer is the freedom to set up a scenario where every outcome will involve dramatic sweeping changes that would totally screw up an ongoing campaign. One year at Princecon we were dealing with entire branches falling off the Tree of Life – although that’s maybe not the best example because the events of each Princecon do build on each other in a unique AFAIK kind of ongoing campaign stretching back to 1976, and I think next year the races that we failed to graft back on were no longer available as PCs.

Know what the action of your event will be. You’ll often write your blurbs before you actually put together the adventure they describe. This is Not Recommended! I didn’t really have it clear in my mind what would happen in this event when I wrote the blurb. I’d like to say that’s because I was avoiding having a foregone conclusion and letting the events of this one be shaped by player actions in the previous games in the series. In fact, I’m much more enthusiastic about having the GM lay rails to the action when it comes to convention games (although Zak provides good advice on how to do this in a sandbox style in this post at Playing D&D with Porn Stars). Really, I was just counting on procrastination to make me figure out what I was going to do right before the con, which may or may not yet happen in the four days remaining, and it kind of shows in this blurb.

Planning to run a convention game and want ideas for your blurb or feedback on the one you’ve drafted? Post in the comments and the Mule mass-mind will provide. It’d also be cool to have folks write blurbs for games they want to play in, instead of run; perhaps someone will take up that gauntlet!


the OTHER Old School Renaissance

There’s been a lot of talk about the literary antecedents of Dungeons & Dragons, and TV shows reflecting the eclectic design ethos of the early days.  But (to my knowledge) there’s been relatively little talk about that other medium influencing and reflecting early Dungeons & Dragons play: interactive fiction, a/k/a “text adventures” like Zork, Wishbringer and A Mind Forever Voyaging.

To make a long post somewhat shorter, here are two points I want to raise:

  1. Back in the day, these sorts of adventure games were about as good as CRPG’s got, and they were a significant part of the Geek-geist, at least among those of us who began playing D&D with the B/X or BECMI stuff of the early 1980’s.  I think the feedback between tabletop RPG’s and these sorts of zany adventure games–primitive gaming tech that nevertheless required you to “imagine the hell out of it” or face sadistic peril–isn’t sufficiently acknowledged in the Old School Renaissance.
  2. This may reveal my shameful ignorance, but interactive fiction has been subject to an Old School Renaissance of its own!  These guys are still going strong: 25 years after these sorts of games ceased to be commercially viable, there is a thriving interactive fiction fan & writing scene!  They’ve got several contests, guidelines for how to write this stuff, and many of them are trying their best to push the limits of the form.  Obviously they’re doing very well for themselves and don’t need validation from the likes of us, but I had no idea they even existed and am very pleased that they’re keeping the genre alive.

If you’re curious about interactive fiction, either because you are a young whippersnapper or, like me, weren’t paying attention for the last twenty years, here are some of the ones that get a lot of critical acclaim:

  • Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, by S. John Ross.  If you’re brand-new to this, like I am, this is a decent place to start as it’s based on an Old School Role-Playing Game (Encounter Critical).  The full version costs $9.95 but there’s a free demo.  This is perhaps the funniest game I’ve played in ages.  If you ever ask yourself, “What’s it like to play with the New York Red Boxers?” the tone of this game comes very, very close, particularly to Tavis’s White Sandbox shenanigans.  (My score is 457 points in 1724 turns.  I imagine others can do better–but I scoff at your efforts all the same, poltroon!)
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Steve Meretzky and Douglas Adams – one of the classic titles from the heyday of IF, snazzed up in 2005 with graphics as part of a movie tie-in.
  • Anchorhead by Michael S. Gentry – a Cthulhu Mythos-inspired piece of interactive fiction.  Its appearance in 1998 seems to have reenergized the IF community.
  • The King of Shreds and Patches, by Jimmy Maher – an interactive fiction adaptation of a classic Call of Cthulhu module.
  • The Metamorphoses, by the prolific Emily Short, is a brief adventure game involving a wizard’s apprentice, notable for its evocative, dream-like imagery.
  • Galatea, another game by Emily Short, is more experimental: a very brief, dialogue-driven game with an exceptionally well-done NPC.

I’ve dabbled in these ever so slightly, but they’re every bit as retro, and as under-appreciated, as Old Timey RPG’s, and if you like one you might well enjoy the other.


9 minute campaign design

Maldoor has a good post about collaborative world-building, which asks how a group can distribute the world-building process, and also, how to bring a new player up to speed quickly.

There’s no answer to the last question other than to present relevant information clearly and concisely.  But that sort of presentation can be enormously helpful in the initial stages of campaign design!

I’ve been fooling around with my old Alternity sci-fi RPG books, where they present a quick way to design campaigns.  This way of presenting the material is mine, but the ideas are courtesy of Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek of the Alternity Gamemaster Guide, published by TSR, Inc.:

  1. What is the Look & Feel of your campaign? Forget about cosmology and rule modifications: what’s your campaign about, in emotional terms and general aesthetics?  Crucially: what are inspirational novels, movies, comics, etc. that put players on the same wavelength so they’re ready to collaborate with you?
  2. What’s the high concept of your campaign? If question #1 is about evoking an emotional response, this one’s about your 30 second elevator pitch.  What’s going on in big picture terms?  Here’s one possible way of doing this for Star Wars: “A tyrannical galactic empire has finally eliminated the last defenders of the old regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries are preparing to strike back.”
  3. What’s the core story? (or: “Lovable misfits who…”) Where do the players fit into that high concept?  What do they do in a typical game?  In Dungeons & Dragons, players are lovable misfits who delve into the depths of the earth and attempt to win treasure by overcoming fiendish traps and (usually) must slay horrific monsters; rinse and repeat.  The core story of Mouse Guard is that the players are lovable misfit mice who patrol a harsh wilderness, protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters; rinse and repeat.
  4. What rules will you be using in your campaign? Self-explanatory: game + house rules.  I’m of the opinion that house rules should be minimal and carefully designed to provoke an emotional or thematic response, but YMMV.  (As a recovering rules-tinkerer, I find it crucial to ask: why does this change matter vis-a-vis items 1, 2 and 3?)
  5. What are the big-scale social institutions or groups in the campaign? This is stuff like churches, cultural institutions, corporations, governments–movers and shakers which plug into the High Concept or the Core Story (preferably both).  People generally glaze over after about 5-9 options.  A sentence description of each is a good idea.
  6. Who are the major supporting cast? These NPC’s could represent the socio-cultural forces listed above.  In any event, they’re men and women who want things relevant to the High Concept and who will get in the way of the Core Story, preferably sooner rather than later.  These guys are designed to be big-leaguers, who are relevant across several adventures and whose desires span most of the campaign.  (These characters don’t need to be high-level or powerful demigods like Elminster, but there ought to be some people with long-range goals and staying power to serve as foils, allies, and antagonists to the players.)  A little goes a long way here.
  7. What are the major threats in the campaign? Perhaps a sub-set of the socio-cultural institutions or the supporting cast.  What are the campaign-wide problems?  They don’t have to be immediate threats, but urgency always helps focus the mind.   Note that “threats” should be relevant either to the High Concept (what the campaign’s all about) or the Core Story (what the heroes do in a typical adventure) – but preferably are relevant to both.  Pick a few of the supporting cast, and figure out how they react to the various threats – no need to be super-detailed, just a general notion.
  8. Draw a map of the campaign setting. Self-explanatory, but it’s better to start small.
  9. Draft up your first adventure. Make sure to get immersed in your Core Story right away, and try to introduce your major threats, major supporting cast, and socio-cultural stuff early on, and in easily digestible pieces.

Here is an example of a nuclear-winter setting I whipped up using these guidelines.  A friend used the same format to design a futuristic dystopian allegory (based on the DMZ comic book by Brian Wood).

Here is my attempt to catch up on the Tavis White Box campaign:

  1. Look and Feel – lighthearted picaresque fantasy farce.  Emotional influences include The Dying Earth and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  2. High Concept – It’s a half-civilized barbaric wilderness, and in the center of it are the Caverns of Thracia, a holy site dedicated to a vanished culture, now overrun by generations of freakish half-human oddities.
  3. Core Story – Players are lovable misfits who delve into the Caverns of Thracia seeking treasure, striking faustian bargains with the monstrosities therein and slaying monsters when necessary.  Much carnage ensues.
  4. Rules – OD&D + player-created classes + bizarre hit point rules + drunk-friendly ability modifier rules
  5. Socio-Cultural Stuff – There are the Churches of Law and Chaos, a Syndicate of Wizards, a Thieves Guild, and a long-lost throne.
  6. Supporting Cast – Celerion the Eagle-Charioteer, Bassianus the Half-Orc Merchant-Gangster, Patriarch Zekon, the Verdant Paladin (deceased), the Ninth Menegril of the Nameless City, Philomena the Enchantress.  (This list is just about too long.)
  7. Major Threats – the Beast Lord, the Gynarch, Evil High Priestess Maxielle, Ashur-Ram the Necromancer, Patriarch of the Dark One (deceased, thanks to the genius of Maldoor).
  8. Map – Outdoor Survival Guide
  9. Intro Adventure – Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jacquays

Easy enough!  The hard part, for a newcomer, is working out the relationships between items 5, 6 and 7 – but this comes with time.  The absolutely crucial thing for a brand-new player, namely figuring out how to play this campaign in the first place, is all about the synergy between between items 1-4, which for most D&D games will be very similar.  (Late 1980’s 2e campaign worlds differ considerably on High Concept, but the other items are in broad agreement and I suspect play style didn’t vary too terribly much.)


Running a Con Game pt. 2: Titles

Let’s pretend that, having read the first post in this series, you know that you want to run a RPG at a gaming convention and what you hope to get out of the experience. What’s next? Deciding what to call your event(s).

Titles are important because, as the last post implied, attracting players is essential to being a con GM. The name of your event is likely to be the first thing potential players see when they pre-register for games or scan the program book at the con. If your title is unappealing, you might have no one show up for your game, which sucks. (If your title is misleading you might get disappointed players because they were expecting something else, which can also suck. But you can help avoid that when you write the blurb for your event, which is the subject of the next post. More people will read the name of the game than its description, so it’s better to have a catchy title and a dull blurb that says “ignore the title, here’s what this game will actually be about” than the other way around.)

On a practical level, the first step in setting yourself up as a convention GM is to get in touch with the con’s gaming organizers.  Cons need people to run games, so they’re eager to hear that you want to volunteer. The con website will usually have an obvious link to their instructions & contact info for GMs. It’s OK to start talking to the folks in charge of the con’s gaming track to help you decide what you want to run, but as soon as you figure that out you’ll need to give them the titles of your events so they can put you into the system.

Here’s an example of that process. I visited the Anonycon website and found the contact info for Max Saltonstall, its hard-working organizer. (I think I followed a link that’s not there now that the game schedule is established). I emailed him and we went back and forth:

ME: I’m interested in DMing some 1974-edition D&D games, and/or new- or old-system Metamorphosis Alpha, at Anonycon. Is it too late to submit events? What should I do if not?

MAX: If you can GM 4 slots we can set you up with a free badge. Have you DMed any of these at conventions before? Would you like to send me some titles and blurbs for a few module proposals?

In retrospect, I’m not sure whether Max was offering to give me some example titles and blurbs that I could use as a model for my own, or whether he had some existing modules that he needed GMs for. Either way it’s worth pointing out that, although I’m assuming that you’re going into this wanting to run an adventure of your own design, the con will often have ones that you could run (for example, Living Forgotten Realms mods) if you don’t want to go to the hassle of making your own. This can be a great way to get experience with just the GMing aspect of running a con game if you’re not interested in or ready for the adventure design part.

Anyway, I wrote back:

ME: Do you have a preference for fantasy (original D&D) or science fiction (Metamorphosis Alpha)?

MAX: I think I have a slight preference for scifi right now, but I like a mix, especially when it comes to game types and systems we do not already have featured.

ME: Cool, I might do a linked series of fantasy and sci-fi games culminating in a mash-up of D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha characters. (I think there are conversion guidelines in the AD&D DMG!)

MAX: I like the idea of a series of games that could also be played independently. How many would you like to do?

ME: I think I’d run four games – nice round number, free badge – which would suggest that they’d be:

Ancient Secrets of Tamoachan, an AD&D game riffing off the ‘easter egg’ reference to the Starship Warden in the classic module

Swords and Starmen, an original-edition MA game culminating in the PCs getting control of a landing craft & leaving the Warden

Battlefield Oerth, a 4E D&D game in which new-school conversions of the previous AD&D pregens fight robots and mutants from the Warden’s other lander

Starman’s Landfall, a MA perspective on the above (ideally using the 4E MA playtest rules)

Writing the blurbs to hint at those connections w/o giving them away will be fun!

Here’s the titles I finally settled on, and an analysis of how well they work.

Hidden Secrets of Tamoachan. The change from my original idea more closely references the original AD&D module, which works well because a) it’s not misleading (the adventure really will romp through the poison-gas-filled pyramid), b) it’s familiar to the target audience of AD&D players while signifying to them that there will be  new revelations even if they’ve been through the module before, and c) the phrase is evocative even to gamers who don’t instantly think “Ah, C1, I know thee well.”

Swords and Star-tribes. The original “Starmen” was meant to reference Andre Norton’s classic Daybreak 2250 AD, but a) it’s misleading because that book was an inspiration for Gamma World, not Metamophosis Alpha, and not all the pregen PCs will be men (some will be women, animals, plants, androids, etc.); b) even I wouldn’t get the reference if I hadn’t just been on a GW-inspiration reading spree; and c) I think the idea of warring tribes is more evocative than the dated-sounding “starmen”. Overall I think this title works pretty well because it takes a phrase that gamers know and love, “swords and sorcery”, and puts an intriguing twist on it that promises a gaming experience that’s relatively rare.

Battlefield Oerth. This is a terrible title. You have to be a Greyhawk nerd to get the twist, but everyone is likely to get the “worst movie of the century” vibe. (I like to think that’s this century he’s talking about, so everything else that happens to me in a movie theater for the next 91 years will be cake by comparison.) You should perhaps ignore all my advice on titles given that this is one that I stuck with.

War for the Starship Warden. The original “Starman’s Landfall” depended on starman, and locked me into doing something with shuttles landing on earth that I wasn’t sure was going to fit the adventure I’d want to run. I kind of like this one – there’s euphony (or something) between “war” and “warden”, and it promises high-concept action.

If I hadn’t put off doing my titles and blurbs until the last minute, it would have been a good idea for me to read these titles to someone else and see whether they’d sign up for a game by that name and what they’d expect it to be. If you are in fact planning to run a con game, post your titles in the comments and I’ll give you that feedback!


Running a Con Game pt. 1: Whaddya Want?

So you’re interested in GMing a RPG at a gaming convention! That’s awesome, both because Gary Gygax himself identified this as a way to ascend the higher levels of Role-Playing Mastery, and because as it happens I have to get ready to run a series of games at Anonycon in Stamford, CT on Dec. 4-6. So by writing a series of how-to blog posts using my own process of prepping for this event as an example, I’m hoping to trick myself into doing this work. Thanks for playing along!

The first step is to ask yourself “what do I want to get out of this experience?” When I take that advice, here are my answers:

1) I want to learn and get hands-on experience with Metamorphosis Alpha. I played the hell out of its successor, Gamma World, but the original rules and setting (available at that link as a free .rtf file) remain excitingly unexplored.

Getting to run the game you want to play is a great reason to volunteer to GM at a convention, Gentle Reader. If the RPG you crave isn’t on their schedule already, step up and run it yourself! Of course, if you’ve had problems finding people who want to play Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time: d1,000,000 Edition among your usual group, recruiting players will still be an issue. The smaller the convention and the more obscure your passion, the bigger this problem will be. Future posts in this series will focus on ways to draw folks into your game.

2) I hope to do some playtesting of MA’s new edition, which uses the D&D 4E ruleset. That’ll mean doing things like having 4E characters mix it up with MA monsters and visa versa, as well as converting the original-edition MA characters to the new rules to see how well it preserves their spirit.

My motivation here is gets it exactly wrong. Good advice would have you playtest your adventure before you get to the con, not conduct playtesting once you’re there. For the Forgotten Heroes tournaments I helped create for Goodman Games and run at Gen Con, we ran the adventures multiple times beforehand with different groups in NYC. You don’t have to go that far, but it’s easy and recommended to take an adventure your regular group liked and use it as the basis for your con game, or slip the material you want to run at the con into your ongoing campaign.

3) I want to explore the mysteries of the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, which is fascinating to me because it was part of my first-ever experience of D&D and remains deeply strange: the pyramid seems to have been constructed as a forward-only time travel device and contains a tiny silver floating thing labeled “NEDRAW II” that I only recently realized is a link to MA, which speaks volumes to me about the early days of TSR history and the links between the first-ever fantasy and science fiction RPGs.

OK, I approve of my motivation here. Since it’s up to you what to run, why not choose something you have a personal connection to? If the mojo of your adventure is meaningful and exciting to you, your players are likely to be inspired by your enthusiasm.

4) I want to game with strangers and learn from their play-style.

This is especially valuable for playtesting, but I give this desire two thumbs up. Playing with groups whose approach can be totally different from your own can challenge your assumptions, and conventions are great for that. It’s an essential educational experience for every gamer. Pardon me while I flip through Master of the Game in search of textual support for this bold claim!

5) I want to help advance the outreach efforts of TARGA, the Traditional Adventure Roleplaying Game Association.

If you’re running something you think is a traditional RPG (read: specifically old-school, not just “is still played on the tabletop like they did last millennium”), you should want to help support TARGA too! More generally, it’s a good idea to see if you can link up with a publisher or organized play group, like the Kentucky Fried Gamers. Doing so can help you find players (the publisher may help promote your event, gamers may choose your game because they recognize your sponsor’s name). You may also be able to get some goodies like freebies and flyers to hand out to your players, prizes to award, a T-shirt, hat, or badge for you to wear, etc. Many publishers have demo teams devoted to this kind of thing that you can join, and you should go ahead and write to anyone you can think of who might be interested in supporting your event.

Here are some of the things I don’t want:

1) I don’t want to have a good time. I hope it happens, but it’s a secondary goal for me at Anonycon.

What I’m going to be doing at Anonycon- running four games in three-and-a-half different systems, related only by their themes – is insane and approaches making sense only in light of my non-fun objectives.

Don’t try this at home. Why are you doing this if not to have fun? Although, one of the ways to not have fun GMing at a convention is if you don’t get enough players for your events. Running the same adventure multiple times is easy because you get really practiced by the end of the con, which helps run it smoothly even when you’re worn out. And it’s enlightening because you get to see how different groups approach the same scenario. But it does mean that if you find some players who like your style, they can’t stick with you because they’ve played the adventure already. Doing related adventures using the same system and same pregen PCs is a good middle ground.

2) I don’t want to impress people with what a great GM I am.

One of the many reasons that convention games can go bad is that the GM is trying too hard. If what I want is to impress people, I’m likely to talk too much, sucking all the air out of the room and not leaving space for the players to, y’know, play. And if my motives for running a game are all about my greatness, there’s a pretty much 100% chance that I’ll be crestfallen when the players don’t shower me with praise. I’m going to show up and do my thing the best I know how. If the other folks at the table pick up on the example I’m trying to set and run with it, awesome! If not, maybe I’ll learn something for next time.

Part 2 of this series has advice on coming up with titles for the events you want to run!


gamer truck, I’m a-coming

In August I played a game of Dogs in the Vineyard with my friends Jenskot and Forager.  For reasons of mutual convenience we played in the lobby of the Citigroup Center and over the course of four hours five people came up to us, very curious about what we were doing.  (We also got chased out of the building by security.)

We tried our best to explain–“It’s like a movie, kind of”–and may have persuaded a particularly interested young woman to go home and buy a copy of Dogs.  People were friendly, curious, and they had no clue this kind of thing even existed.  There were several other D&D 4e players at the venue, and clearly whatever we were doing was very different to on-lookers.

This led to some speculation on NerdNYC, and we started to dream big.  In New York, there are these gourmet lunch trucks that drive around the city, using Twitter to meet up with customers.  Naturally our thoughts turned to buying a truck and forming a roaming lunchtime gaming squad, using grants for funding etc.  (This is so awesome, but it is so far in the future after so much work, that we might as well forget about it.)

This led to a conversation with my girlfriend:

ME: . . . So me and Jenskot are kicking around ways to game with non-gamers.
GIRLFRIEND: Yes, your Outreach to Investment Bankers idea. It’s silly.
ME: It’s not so silly.
GIRLFRIEND: You are never going to have a truck driving around New York.
ME: We could write a grant!
GIRLFRIEND: Are you going to have Gandalf parallel park for you?
ME: . . . The truck is not the important thing. Right now we’re trying to think of venues were we’d meet lots of interested non-gamers.
GIRLFRIEND: What about senior centers?
ME: ? ? ?
GIRLFRIEND: They’re playing Wii now. And the ones at Lyman’s Orchard were playing Apples to Apples. So maybe they’d like to play your kind of games.
ME: . . .
GIRLFRIEND: You could volunteer, they would like the company. You could go on family visit days and teach them something to do with their grandkids.  I mean, that’s just one example.  There are all kinds of populations you never seem to think about, who might be into your games.
ME: ! ! !
GIRLFRIEND: You better give me credit when you talk about this on the Internet.

Anyway, this is a long way of saying, our group and our extended friends are actively doing field research on public interest in gaming.  The first step in getting our Gamer Truck is figuring out public demand for it!  Or rather, even if we never get the truck, we want to do some out-reach on behalf of gaming in general.  Tonight we’ll be playing Zombie Cinema and, if we have time, How to Host a Dungeon (about which more later, when their website’s not broken).  We’ll be playing these games as “bait” to lure new people into the hobby.

Here’s why this is relevant to Old School games: we are old.  Already, a huge chunk of “our” history is lost, and we owe a lot of thanks to the hard work of guys like James Mishler, RandallS,  and James Malizewski in helping to recover our heritage in this silly hobby.

Unless we bring in new blood, however, all of that work will be for nothing.  So our gang of players is testing what works to get more people into role-playing in general, and from there, try to see if anyone’s into Old-Timey Dungeons & Dragons – because we think that it deserves to be part of the future of gaming, as well as its past.


What game were we playing?

(This was once a post to NerdNYC, but it’s a decent summary of my earliest days playing.)

I started playing RPG’s at age 9, after the Wrightstown Elementary School Barn Dance.  Hollis’s mom, who was kind of a strange hippie type, had bought him a new kind of game–Dungeons & Dragons (Mentzer, Red Box, 1983)–and he wanted us to play it with him as the “Dungeon Master.”

For pretty much the next twenty years, I’ve been a big fan of RPG’s in general, and Red Box D&D has always held a special spot in my heart.  That was our favorite game from about 1985 to 1989.  Our characters went on crazy quests, defeated Demogorgon, won strange artifacts, fought beasts from the 5th Dimension (the Dimension of Nightmares, as everyone knows).

In late 2007, as the Old School Renaissance was gearing up, I dug out my old copies of Mentzer’s BECMI–and I’m astonished that, to the best of my knowledge, we never engaged with any of the rules.

On that first night back in 1985, I played a Cleric with 4 Charisma. None of us knew what “Charisma” meant, but I was very unhappy with that low score.  Tim played a Fighter.  I don’t remember anything about the dungeon, except that it involved graph paper, and all kinds of crazy monsters from the AD&D Monster Manual (which had funky pictures in it).  My Cleric died almost immediately fighting a carrion crawler; we bribed Hollis with Halloween candy to let us live.

Most of the rest of our “campaign” over the next couple of years ended up being weird, random stuff that didn’t make much sense, handled almost entirely through declaration and fiat. For example:

  • We never bothered with encumbrance rules
  • We never bothered with morale
  • We never bothered with movement rates
  • We never bothered with spell durations & AoE
  • We never bothered with spells, actually
  • We never bothered with attack rolls, damage, etc.

Basically: you name the rule, we ignored it.

The process of playing Basic Dungeons & Dragons consisted of…

  • Drawing maps on graph paper.  All the time.  I was lucky because my dad was an engineer, and he had easy access to all the graph paper I would ever need.
  • Imagining your character’s crazy adventures to yourself, and then maybe telling your friends about them.  I think my guy found the Scarf-Sword of Sinbad–it was this scarf, that was also a sword, and Sinbad used it.  I found it in this port city in the desert!  It was hard to get to!  I had to read directions on how to get there, by using my Elf-vision to read a map written in vapor upon the ocean mists.
  • Also: imagining making friends with strange monsters. Like, the lion-pegasus friend, who was really smart and fierce and probably gave me advice, and looked cool even though I could not draw lions very well.
  • Along the same lines, having sex with were-tigers.  A few decades of sexual development have persuaded me that this would most likely be a bad idea.  I am sorry, all you fine were-tiger ladies out there.
  • Every once in a while, we’d get together, and imagine a new crazy adventure for a character.  Like the time I subdued this gold dragon, sold it, and made enough money to buy a warship.
  • At one point early on we had a party of NPC’s, including Greegan from the Mentzer Basic set (because he looked awesome) and Grax the Dwarf who was so dumb we paid him with dirt.  We got a lot of mileage out of how dumb Grax was.
  • Reading and re-reading the adventure modules, wondering what it would be like to play them. I remember CM7: The Tree of Life in particular, and thinking it was potentially cool but also involved a lot of stupid shit about colorful rainbows, puzzles, and trials.  But the villain, who was a Wizard obsessed with turning into an Elf via cloning, and who around on a wyvern, was pretty bad-ass.
  • Buying more of the boxed sets, to think of more crazy adventures.  One of them involved advancing 20 levels  by giving the DM a lot of candy at lunch time.  (This candy-based XP system appears to have been a common theme in our play at that time.)
  • The one time I remember actually playing the game more or less as intended, my guy was in a dungeon, off on his own, in a room when the Orcs start knocking on the door.  I decide that my character will hide under the bed!  To demonstrate, I then hid under the bed myself.  Tim and Hollis demonstrated the Orcs’ reaction by jumping on the bed.  I think we never finished playing out that combat, because someone had to leave.
  • I think in early middle school, Adam joined our group, and became our go-to DM.  He ran a bunch of adventures involving the Lone Wolf world.  Adam’s adventures were cool because he had character-specific subplots, and occasionally we actually used the rules.  But God, being a Thief was awful. We assumed that to backstab someone, you had to succeed at Moving Silently (10% chance) and Hiding (10%) – essentially, you had a 1% chance of being useful, and a 99% chance of getting stomped when the enemy turned around to see you inexpertly trying to lurk around beind it.  But I thought Thieves were cool anyway.  I ended up with an Intelligent Morning-Star.  Adam also used Lone-Wolf as a GMPC character, which I remember resenting, but mechanically he might have worked as a high-level Elf.

But it really does baffle me that, for all the time we spent in an activity labelled “playing D&D”, we really never played the game. It was just like “ridicuous 10 year olds imagining an incoherent fantasy world.”  A friend described it as Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time, which seems pretty apt.

We briefly tried it again when we were 13, but AD&D 2e came out almost immediately after I drew the campaign map, and after some heated argument (“Multi-class? What’s that?! It’s the stupidest thing I ever heard! What, you can be a Dwarf/Elf???!”) we switched to the newer edition.

Over the last eighteen months or so, the New York Red Box crowd has gone back to the early editions of D&D to “do it right,” this time with rules.  (I’m a big believer in Encumbrance, which I think is a crucial but frequently overlooked mechanic.)  If you’re reading this blog, it shouldn’t surprise you that the game-as-written is a lot of fun.  But it’s not quite the same.

So here’s a question.  If we arrange Gygaxian D&D in a spectrum based on how “nailed down” the rules are (I’m envisioning OD&D as the “not nailed down at all” pole, and AD&D as the “rules for everything” pole), do you get closer to Super Awesome Let’s Pretend Time the closer you move to OD&D?  If so, doesn’t this imply that playing “freeform” is even more fun than anything D&D can muster?  If instead this is a state of mind that doesn’t depend on a particular rule set, what are the rules for?

Past Adventures of the Mule

December 2021

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,054 other followers