Monday, March 29, 2010

D&D marathon—12 hours at the Keep on the Borderlands in Chicago

Chgowiz lives! Everyone's favorite old guy RPG guru showed up at my local game shop in Chicago yesterday to attempt a daunting task: a 12-hour D&D marathon using Keep on the Borderlands.

The format was similar to the Tower of Gygax events that have been run at GenCon the last couple of years. Players could sit down, grab a pre-gen character sheet, and join in the fight. When they died, they stood up and someone else sat down to play for a while. Mike also kept track of how long the players had been in the game; when no one died and there was a player standing around waiting to jump in, he'd boot the longest-living player. It was all in good fun, and the players cheerfully vacated their seats to let the newbies sit down.

As for me, I live 4 blocks down the street from shop, so I played two separate sessions: one before noon, when ol' Chgowiz was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and another toward the end of the evening, when he had the thousand-yard stare going.

The game was Holmes D&D, which had a few interesting quirks that I learned about (clerics have no spells at 1st level, oil does crazy damage, adventurers can walk three abreast down a dungeon hallway).

Throughout the day, there was remarkable continuity in terms of player progress. When the mapping player's character died, he'd pass along the map (which had probably been started 2 or three players ago) to the next likely mapping player, so he could take up the pencil for an hour or so. Likewise with treasure and magic items looted from the Caves of Chaos. We just passed 'em down the line. A healing potion filched at noon might finally be used around 5:30 p.m. by a new player.

Mike kept things rolling throughout the day and into the evening, fueled only by pizza and an everful chalice of iced tea. He used miniatures for the sticky combats and allowed players to roleplay to their heart's content back at the keep. The action definitely wasn't centered on the Caves of Chaos; in true sandbox fashion, we went wherever we wanted and found adventure waiting for us when we arrived. We uncovered a plotting priest of chaos in the keep itself, led an attack on a hobgoblin camp in the wilderness—and of course, pilfered the Caves of Chaos, albeit in a haphazard fashion.

Each player who survived an hour got a free d20 and a d6, compliments of the good folks at Chicagoland Games. Mike also had some very nice printed copies of Matt Finch's Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, which he gave out to players as well. (This was probably the ideal context to distribute this most excellent treatise, following on the heels of a glorious one-hour old school dungeon romp.) In the end, Mike estimated we probably got through 20 percent of the module. I'd guess 15 to 20 players rotated in and out of the game throughout the day. Some came back three, four, even five times to play new PCs.

The best part came during the final hour of the game. Two players who had never played D&D—or tabletop roleplaying in general—stopped by the table. I'm guessing they were a boyfriend/girlfriend combo. They said their only experience with this type of geekery so far had been playing World of Warcraft. So of course, we happily booted some players to make room for them. Mike explained their character sheets, we pointed out what was on their equipment lists, and they plunged into the fray. There was much laughter and gnashing of teeth for another hour or so, and then Chgowiz called the game around 9 p.m. Applause broke out at the table—he'd been at it for 11 straight hours.

Afterward, I asked the two newbies how they heard about this D&D marathon. Stunningly, they had simply googled "D&D chicago" a few hours before—having never played, only heard about the game from a friend—found the game store's website at the top of the results page, found this event on the store's online calendar, hopped in their car, and drove out to play. Their whole day of gaming coalesced in less than six hours. After the game, they inquired about the weekly D&D 4e game that takes place each Monday at the store, and they left with plans to return next week. It's an amazing world we live in.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Office space roleplaying: Swords & Wizardry Quick Start

Last night I gathered a couple coworkers, and a buddy who works down the street, to try out the Swords & Wizardry Quick Start module. Jim, Dustin, Mick and I ended up having a smashing good time rampaging through the Dungeon of Akban, looting the hell out of the place and (so far, at least) living to tell the tale. The photo above shows our den of geekery, converted from a small conference room in our office building. We stayed late, sneaked in some beers and had a grand old time.

The session was my chance to introduce these colleagues of mine to RPGs. After a year of hearing me rave about how cool old-school tabletop RPGs are compared to video games, they would finally have the chance to decide for themselves. We were joined by a friend who's part of my regular gaming group—he added a little veteran perspective to our group of newcomers.

Character generation was quick and simple. Jim had played before, waaaay back in his elementary school years, and even he was surprised at how quickly stuff like Armor Class and Saving Throw came back to him. Mick had played a lot of video game RPGs like Fallout, so he really enjoyed the wide-open nature of the game—if you can imagine it, you can try to do it.

Mick and Jim rolled up straightforward fighters, and Dustin made an Elf fighter. So...three fighters. Veteran roleplayers will no doubt be wondering how the party survived without a magic-user or a cleric. But really, it's a testament to the quality of the Chgowiz's Quick Start adventure that we were able to plump the depths of Akban despite having a rather lopsided group of adventurers.

And so we delved. I introduced them to the concept of mapping, and Dustin took to that job with great aplomb. He gave advice when needed—based on his own D&D experiences playing Chgowiz's Dark Ages game—but he didn't smother the other two players. They all contributed to the evening's successes and failures.

We did a bit of exploring and saw three hard-fought combats: one when the group charged into a nest of giant centipedes, and two more running battles against the bands of goblins that infested the dungeon. In the first goblin combat, oil bombs took out 6 goblins in one round, leaving just one horribly wounded survivor who was interrogated and then summarily executed.

The second goblin combat was far more dangerous, and resulted in Spier the Fighter collapsing in a bloody heap (I quickly implemented the -10HP countdown rule to give them time to revive him). You can see Spier's prostrate form in the foreground of the photo above, with his fellows standing guard over him as the goblins move into position down the hallway. Only by killing the pesky goblin shaman—who tried his damnedest to flee the scene—was the group able to steal 3 healing potions off his still-warm corpse and use them to revive Spier.

And right around that point we decided to call it a night. We'd played for maybe 2 hours, with a break in the middle to check the doors and make sure we weren't accidentally locked inside the office. I didn't want to initiate them with a marathon session. But the best part came at the end, as I started gathering up my miniatures and dungeon tiles. Both Jim and Mick said they had a great time, and they asked to play again soon. I said sure, we'll make a note of where we are in the dungeon, and when we sit back down we'll play the same characters and go from there.

I don't care if you're rolling dice in 1980 or 2010: That's how campaigns are born, folks.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My contribution to International Traditional Gaming Week

After a few weeks spent wrangling schedules, it looks like I'm going to run a Swords & Wizardry game for a couple of my coworkers this evening.

It's serendipitous that our game falls within International Traditional Gaming Week, because I made a conscious choice to run S&W for these guys. Specifically, I'm using Mike Shorten's Swords & Wizardry Quick Start, so we'll see how things go after tonight. I've got dice, graph paper, miniatures and dungeon geomorphs stashed away in my cubicle, waiting for the bosses to leave. Then, it's off to the dungeon—er, conference room.

Photos to follow.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Focus on the newbies

I run games in constant fear of boring my players, especially some of the veterans in my group who aren't all that enthused by game elements that might interest newer, less experienced players. I find myself catering to the veterans more frequently by giving them whatever "red meat" pushes their buttons—that might be in-depth roleplaying opportunities or epic battle scenes or scenarios that test their personal codes of honor.

But I need to get over that tendency, because it's more important to focus on the new players for whom roleplaying is a fresh, wonderful endeavor. They're the ones who peruse equipment charts with starry-eyed wonder and take careful notes about what sort of stone the dungeon walls are made out of. They're very likely in the midst of the same "lighting in a bottle" phase that veteran players (me included) find so hard to re-capture.

My fellow player Ben, himself a veteran of countless RPGs, drove this point home recently in an email. Experienced RPGers, he said, can find ways to have fun and get their kicks out of virtually any well-run game. But newer players, when presented with the vast, open-endedness of most RPG settings, might be looking for a few specific things right off the bat. Maybe a nice, succinct dungeon delve, or a way to cast themselves as heroes (or villains) in a sleepy frontier town.

It's a good GM who can recognize this and help encourage their growth. That's something I'm going to do more of in the future.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The glory of the gaming auction, part 2

So the twice-yearly Game Plus gaming auction came and went earlier this month. If you've read this blog much, you'll know that the auction is a fixture in the Chicago gaming scene—literally hundreds of sellers unload their unwanted gaming goods (board games, RPGs, miniatures, everything else) over four frenetic days of bidding. It's almost a convention unto itself, albeit one restricted to a single event.

It's fascinating to attend, because it really gives a sampling of the Midwestern gamer zeitgeist of the each particular year. Last September, for example, D&D 4e products didn't sell (to one commenter's woe). This year, a bunch of older gamers whipped themselves into a bidding frenzy over a string of Middle Earth Roleplay products, which I gather are becoming increasingly hard to find. Each year, a few reliable products command high prices (Deities and Demigods feat. Cthulhu, the D&D little brown books, entire Warhammer 40k armies painted to a decent degree, etc).

In any case, the March auction witnessed an undeniable resurgence of interest in D&D 3.x products. Gently used Players Handbooks and DM Guides consistently sold for $18 to $22 all day long; at the height of the bidding, when the room was packed with a standing-room-only crowd, I watched a 3.5 PHB sell for $38...that's right, more than the original retail price.

I participated heavily, both as a seller and as a buyer. I ended up selling off a bunch of oddball RPGs, assorted board games and random miniatures that I convinced myself I'd never get around to painting. I also put up my entire collection of Star Wars RPG d6 books—this was only a bit sentimental, as the SWRPG constituted my initial foray into roleplaying. But the prequels have forever soured my desire to ever roleplay Star Wars ever again, and I was pleased that my whole pile o' loot sold for more than $200. Sweet!

On the buying front, I ended up sitting through 8+ hours of bidding on Saturday and Sunday with very little to show for it. I was interested in a lot of stuff, but not so interested that I wanted to get in a bidding war with the dude sitting across the room, know what I'm sayin'? I'm going to have to re-think my strategy, especially on the RPG front, because I'm finding that there's not that much I'm really looking for anymore. The gem of the day was a very nice copy of Palladium's Weapons and Castles sourcebook from 1982. This was an excellent buy, given my current fascination with castles sieges (due in no small part to my recent re-reading of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones books).

I fared much better on Sunday, which was dedicated to miniatures. There I picked up two awesome random bags of old, half-painted miniatures from a variety of manufacturers and game system, all for $10 a bag. Between the two bags, I probably scored 35+ individual figures. I got Ral Partha, Grenadier, Citadel and a big pile of figs from the now-defunct manufacturer Adiken. That should keep me painting for a while!

Friday, March 12, 2010

These 1/72 guys look better in a group

I've been painting off and on the last couple of weeks, and I've finally ended up with a decent array of 1/72 medieval knight dudes. I'm planning to use these for mass combat in a variety of game systems, so everything has been kept intentionally generic. They're just a bunch of guys with swords and shields, which is great. And they look pretty sharp in a big group—and they're SO CHEAP.

The cavalry take a long time to paint, not the least because I am running out of ways to paint the horses. Moving forward, I think they're just going to be black or brown, to save time. I'm very pleased with how the bases have come out...this is my new basing scheme, which takes a lot of time but looks very nice when finished.

I wish I could say my painting is drawing to a close, but it's not. I just picked up 35+ random fantasy miniatures at a gaming auction last weekend. Add that to the pile of unpainted dudes sitting around on my desk, and I should be well occupied until this time next year.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Winter is HBO

Today HBO greenlit the first TV season of George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones novel, the first in the epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. This is great, great news—I've been following the casting and development of the pilot that was filmed late last year. Looks like it'll start filming in earnest this summer, with nine episodes planned for the first season (plus the pilot, which is already complete).

Take a look at this pic, which I swiped from Winter Is Coming, an excellent rumor site dedicated to the show's development. That's from the opening chapter of the book, when brothers of the Night's Watch venture into the haunted forest in pursuit of wildling raiders. But something else is stirring in the frigid woods, something ancient and evil...

Time to go subscribe to HBO!

The review that got me into RPGs

Back in 1997 I was a year into high school and obsessed with Magic: The Gathering. Who wasn't? The game was on fire, and I was making lots of friends at drop-in Magic events.

As far as RPGs went, I had purchased and played just one: Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, by West End Games. I loved it, but I didn't run in RPG social circles, so I really had no awareness of the hobby as a was just me with my SWRPG book, tinkering around with stats and dreaming of ways to sucker my friends into a campaign.

I had just subscribed to InQuest magazine, Wizard Entertainment's zine dedicated to the CCG industry; coincidentally, they expanded to cover RPGs about this same time. That's where I ran across this review of Blue Planet, the hard sci-fi RPG by Biohazard Games (and now published by RedBrick) set on a waterworld brewing with action and intrigue.

I still remember reading this review: It made my head spin. Suddenly I "got" what made RPGs so immersive. I understood why players returned to the same characters time after time, eventually creating a shared narrative that unfolded over months and years. My experience with SWRPG mostly consisted of finding the fastest way to kill three dozen stormtroopers. With Blue Planet, I finally had the sense of an entire hobby built around these innovative games of the imagination.

It wasn't until 2000 that I got any closer to finding out about Blue Planet. As fate would have it, I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO...the home of Blue Planet creator Jeffrey Barber. To make a long story short, I eventually met Jeff and had my "geek moment" where I gushed about how cool Blue Planet was, how I'd always wanted to play it, etc. We did end up gaming together, but it wasn't Blue Planet; it was Midnight, a D&D setting Jeff was writing for Fantasy Flight Games.

I still remember when Jeff got his dream job, a gig teaching biology at a school in Hawaii. I mean hell, it doesn't get more Blue Planet than that! Before he left to go live on an island and swim with stingrays, though, Jeff gave me (I was 22 at this point) one copy of each published book from the Blue Planet line from his personal stock, thus equipping me for the subsequent Blue Planet campaigns I would run over the next few years.

I was going through a box of my old InQuests last weekend and came across this can't imagine how it fired my 15-year-old imagination.