Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 1

Today is the beginning of GameHole Con (this year it runs from November 5-8). Normally this convention takes place in Madison, Wisconsin, but due to COVID-19, it is entirely virtual this year. What I love about GameHole is the great community of old-school gamers (although there is still plenty of modern D&D 5E available for those interested in the current edition).

This morning I played in a Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game called Hall of Bones. S&W is made by Frog God Games, and after Troll Lord Games (the company that makes Castles & Crusades – the game I run), this is the company I support the second most. S&W is a great game system modeled off Original Dungeons & Dragons and its supplements from 1974-1978. It is a great and challenging game and I enjoy opportunities to experience the game as a player.

Swords & Wizardry Complete Rulebook (by Frog God Games)

There are three primary things that stand out about S&W old-school game play:

1. Description.
Because it is modeled off original D&D there are no fancy feats or elaborate skills. You explore dungeon corridors by saying what you are doing step-by-step and you can hear, feel, smell, and taste the environment around you as you and the Game Master interact through your descriptive interplay (this is so much more fulfilling than the “roll a Perception check” approach). There is much greater depth and interaction with a game like S&W (at least if you get a good GM, and I very much did for this game session, our GM described the types of wood the dungeon doors were made of, the wood grain angle, etc. – very immersive).

2. Journey.
The adventure itself was very simple from the perspective of only being around a half dozen rooms. Yet in our four hour game our characters where crawling on their stomachs through narrow passageways, prying up stone slabs inside a metal cage found inside a large cavern filled with hundreds of huge spiders, passing through rooms aglow with phosphorescent fungus and mushrooms, etc. This is a type of game where when you are done you may realize that, yes, there were only about six rooms, but it is the journey through them that you remember. Every step was memorable. And you had to do it through player creativity and thinking, not simply glancing at your character sheet to see “can I do this?” In a game like S&W you can always try something. I love not getting bogged down in skills and feats, this way of gaming is so much more fluid, dynamic and immersive since every experience is a puzzle that you have to solve, you aren’t just mindlessly rolling a die and briefly glancing at the result while you’re scrolling through some nonsense on your phone – you have to pay attention. And you are rewarded for that with a much richer experience.

3. Unsolved Mysteries.
Both while traveling through these dungeon rooms, corridors, as well as natural cave formations formed from centuries of underground rivers and streams, there were things we encountered which were simply unexplained. I love games with mystery where you don’t just “roll a nature check” and get all the answers. Some things you simply don’t know if you are a 17 year old human fighter from a small medieval farming village. There are not only some things you don’t know, you may never find the answer. The world is so much bigger and more mysterious with this approach.

4. Danger everywhere, some of which you cannot defeat.
And like so many old school games, there is danger lurking everywhere. The GM left us guessing when we entered a cavern that was beyond what the dwarf could see with his underground sight. Webs covered the floor, walls, and ceiling, and we could tell that there were things behind the webs, but they were but mere shapes. We could hear chittering, but couldn’t make out details. When we decided to rush towards a sheltered cage around 20 feet from the entry to this cavern and enclose ourselves in it, that was when hundreds of spiders surrounded us from everywhere, and it was then that we realized that even firing arrows through the large (more than 10 x 10 feet in size) that we wouldn’t nearly have enough ammunition to hit or kill all of them. We managed through careful examination to find a stone slab beneath our feet that we could move and then lower ourselves into a small stone corridor and crawl to a new location. If we would’ve tried to enter the room thinking we were going to have a “balanced encounter” we would’ve died. Immediately. Every choice matters in a game like S&W. I love it!

One great benefit of a convention game is being able to try a game out with a GM or players you may never have gamed with before and in four hours just go all out and try and do everything – give the game a genuine workout – put yourself out there and see what the game, you, your fellow players, and the GM, are capable of doing. In many of these conventions you will find games, GM’s and players that you come to really like and then you can plan to game together again at future cons. This is another experience I love.

Now, because of the pandemic, this con is entirely online this year, and it was admittedly a different experience doing this on Discord, rolling virtual dice (I normally hate rolling virtual dice and I refuse unless I have to, for me, feeling dice in my hand is one of the key experiences of RPG gaming), but it worked well enough in this case. Map fragment graphics were displayed when necessary to provide a basic outline of rooms, but this game was good and proper Theatre of the Mind.

Tomorrow and Saturday I will be playing the Dungeon Crawl Classics game system and doing classic AD&D giant adventures from the distant past (1978). But more on that tomorrow…