Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 4

Summary
Final day of gaming at Virtual GameHole Con 2020. I played in a 0-level funnel adventure for Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC), and I consider virtual convention gaming practices vs. convention gaming in person.

DCC core books, and my four 0-level characters, two have the stamp of death on them.

For the final day of gaming at Virtual GameHole Con 2020 I played in a 0-level funnel adventure for DCC – Hole in the Sky. I began with four 0-level characters and two survived!

The adventure began with 5 players controlling 20 0-level characters. The fun thing about DCC 0-level characters is that you begin with nothing. Our characters began with 4 hit points, and my characters – a dwarven mushroom-farmer, a dwarven chest-maker, a slave, and a halfling trader – had no armor and their weapons included chisels and a club. Like so many DCC adventures, there were some wonderous things (e.g. an invisible bridge that we traveled on for days), and strange dimensions with weird creatures. People are suspicious, and a single hit can from a monster or an unfortunate fall can kill you instantly. I own the Goodman Games stamps that you can use on your character sheets if your character dies and when I lost two characters during the latter part of the adventure, I was able to use the stamp of death on my slave and halfling trader since our judge (who normally does it when you game in person) couldn’t do it obviously due to distance gaming on Zoom. The game ended well for my two dwarves with them acquiring armor and weapons – a great start as they can now begin their careers as level 1 dwarves.

I spent Thursday – Saturday getting used to rolling digital dice on Discord and Roll20, but today our Judge wanted us to roll our dice by hand and it felt good to do real table-top gaming. Real hand rolling is for me what RPG gaming is about. One takeaway from this virtual convention is that although I can see some uses for virtual rolling, hand rolling is superior. Also, as an educator I know that a person learns best by doing. The more you rely on VTT’s to do all the calculations for you, the less you are going to learn about the game. I play DCC heavily at Con of the North, Gary Con, and GameHole three times each year, and in between I run Castles & Crusades in all my multiple weekly games, so I sometimes need to be reminded of certain DCC rules. My Roll20 experience was relatively easy (once I figured out the minimum basics of that interface) and all I had to do was click a button and everything was done for me. But it is a bad system if you actually want to learn the game (or advance your current knowledge of it). I did more actually DCC system learning in this Sunday game than in the previous three games I participated in on Friday and Saturday. When you are forced to learn what you add/subtract, and you have to do the calculations yourself you have to learn. I do worry about the slow dumbing down we are experiencing as we rely more and more on technology to do things for us as we just sit back and push buttons and don’t have to engage our minds as much.

This Sunday game was also completely theatre of mind – no maps or anything – and I think in hindsight a little art sharing or a generalized layout of a couple of areas we traveled to would’ve been helpful (and I am not trying to criticize my Judge for the game, he was very good, but some visuals do help). Although I am a theatre of mind person myself, when I run my C&C games on Discord I always have screen share in use to show my players a piece of art or a dungeon map fragment. So although I will not go back to my 3E days of dwarven forge and dungeon maps (that tactical stuff slows things down way too much and reduces ones ability to imagine things outside the box), it is helpful to have some visual assistance to help guide your imagination. After the adventure today I looked up Hole in the Sky and was of course impressed by the art inside (DCC stands on its own with its very unique style of art) and things came together a lot better for me when I could connect my experiences with the visuals.

There are several reasons why I game at conventions:
1. To try new games, or to play the games I love that are overshadowed by the giants of 5E and Pathfinder (i.e. DCC, Swords & Wizardry, Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea, C&C).
2. Meet new players who I can join with again at these same conventions in the future, or, if they are from Minnesota, might game with me in person.
3. Experience different GM styles so that I can improve my own games. This convention I experienced a couple of different takes on how to game on Discord (slightly different from how I run things in my games), I experienced Roll20 for the first time, and I played in my first Zoom game.

These experiences all had their strengths and weaknesses technology wise. The sad thing about gaming virtually is when the game is over everyone instantly exits the virtual gaming table and disappears. Whereas in person you can chat afterword and gain new friends. I really missed that.

One takeaway from this is that as soon as we begin gaming in person again I will return to visiting GaryCon and GameHole (these Wisconsin conventions are just 4-5 hours from where I live in Minnesota), Con of the North takes place 15 minutes from where I live, so I will obviously game in person there, but I will consider virtual gaming in the future for other conventions further away from me (so, for example, I would love to visit North Texas RPG Con since I am an old-school gamer and I have only heard good things about that Con, but I really don’t have an interest in driving or flying down to Texas. So if virtual gaming becomes a long term part of that convention, then I would register for that virtually. Virtual gaming conventions are in some ways a frustration, but they can also open up new opportunities).

Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 3

A magnificent Day 3 at Virtual GameHole Con playing Dungeon Crawl Classics versions of the classic AD&D modules Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King! After two epic games fighting giants, the third in the giant trilogy ended up being a battle to the death with many casualties DCC style! Another great reminder to me why DCC is one of the best convention gaming experiences you can have.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Core Rules and Quick Start Rules

Yesterday I played in a DCC version of the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. We put part of the steading on fire, took down the kitchen staff, and then ended the adventure by entering the Chief’s main room pretending to be kitchen servants and then taking them all down by surprise.

For this morning’s adventure we all moved up a level from 3 to 4 and began our mission to take on the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. We fought our way through ice trolls, hill giants, frost giants and their shaman, and after taking down two fire giants with mighty deeds, got the fire giant ambassador to surrender and hand over his parchment of introduction to the frost giant jarl. With confidence we then approached the two frost giants at the entry to the jarls great hall seeking entry, but when our negotiations broke down we entered yet another battle. We were feeling confident (since we had successfully taken care of the Hill Giant Chief the previous day and most recently the trolls and giants in the frost giant area), but then the situation got a lot more chilling when a dragon appeared! But with spellcasters spell-burning themselves to maximize an arsenal of magic missiles, the halfling burning luck to assist the priest in healing, and my dwarf using his powerful dwarven hammer and shield bash pounding out one mighty deed after another, we took it down. However, after defeating the dragon our four hour game had come to an end. So although we didn’t get to take on the Frost Giant Jarl, ending the adventure by defeating a dragon will always provide a sense of accomplishment!

After a one hour break we reconvened for our third game we took on the Hall of the Fire Giant King. Would our luck hold? No! Although we were elevated another level to level 5, one’s luck can only last so long, it seems. Almost immediately upon entering the hall of the fire giant king we took down several fire giants and the fire giant king went down with minimal struggle, but it was not as easy as our time in the hill giant and frost giant lairs due to our Roll20 digital dice rolls not always going in our favor, which forced us to burn luck and spell burn.

Still, we defeated the fire giant king and we were only 30 minutes into our game. What more was there to do? My dwarf, Gromlir, sat on the throne and pretended being king for a moment pondering options with the rest of the group. After some time to think we chose to explore the mountain halls to discover what was going on. After some upper level wandering we eventually passed to the lower levels and encountered two ettins, and when a fire giant forge worker began hurling anvils at us, we escaped down a narrow stairway (which giants could descend only with difficulty), and entered a large chamber divided by a lava flow. Making our way over the lava flow we encountered a couple of chimera and managed to deal with them.

Throughout all our combats in the fire giant halls our rolls were not always in our favor and we had all been burning our luck (my dwarf’s luck score had gone from 12 to 1 during our adventure, the halfling had used up all of his luck as well, and our magic user was no longer able to spell burn). It was then that we were attacked by three mind flayers! We were in the greatest danger and were now out of luck! At one point three of our group were about to have their brains sucked out of their heads only to have party members like my dwarf shield bash a tentacle off and free a person. But with no spell burning and luck available to boost our dice rolls, our unending success had come to an end. When all was said and done the three mind flayers took down most of us (including my dwarf Gromlir). But those of us who lost our lives to the mind flayers gave the last two characters a chance to live long enough to take down the final illithid. As most of us lay dead with our brains having been devoured, the two members remaining swore over our dead bodies to tell others about the mighty deeds we had done and how we managed to defeat the hill giants, frost giants, fire giants, and mind flayers.

Over the last two days we had 3 game sessions lasting 12 epic hours. This is what convention gaming should be like! Tomorrow for the last day of GameHole I will be in only one game, but it will be a 0-level funnel. How many of my 3-4 characters will survive the onslaught? I find out tomorrow!

Virtual GameHole Con 2020, Day 2

Day two at Virtual GameHole and today I spent the afternoon playing in a Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) interpretation of the classic AD&D module Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. This module is always a joy to immerse oneself in, and through the lens of DCC almost anything can happen!

The DCC Core Rulebook and a supplementary book of charts.

As you will find on these virtual convention games, the gaming platform will vary from game to game based on the GM’s preference. In my Swords & Wizardry game yesterday we were on Discord voice and text chat, today it was Discord voice and Roll20 VTT. I have never used Roll20 before, so I was a little slow in the game at first (all the games I run online are Castles & Crusades games that embrace a Theater of Mind approach that is met simply by using Discord voice, text chat, and screen share, and we all roll real dice in our hands like RPG’s are meant to be played!). Several others in this group were also inexperienced in Roll20, and perhaps as a result we were a little slow starting off in communicating as we approached the Hill Giant Steading, and did a lot of preliminary hunting about to find the best way to proceed (although caution is wise when approaching a giant stronghold!).

We did have a good group of players, though, so once we got acclimated to this environment we made steady progress (I even managed to grudgingly accept digital dice rolling!). The team work built up, and began making bolder moves, spell burn occurred, luck was burned, and it very soon became a full-on DCC convention game! At the end of four hours we managed to make it through the outer ring of the Steading, entered the main hall, and then took on the Hill Giant Chief. My human warrior was quite pleased to step forward and take on the chief with another as the rest of the group took on frost giants and fire giants. Our DCC characters were level 3, and yet through some might deeds and typical DCC madness we prevailed!

Although the campaigns I run are all Castles & Crusades, the games I play the most at conventions are DCC. There is something about getting together with other gamers and be able to go ALL OUT to see what gaming madness you can achieve in 4 hours that makes DCC, in my mind, the BEST game for conventions. All those critical hit and fumble charts as well as spell charts and deed die options leads to epic collapses and staggering successes in a way that no other game that I am aware of can produce. When you only have four hours to game, DCC gives you the most exciting experience!

Tomorrow the DCC madness will continue as I will be with the same Judge and several of the same players to take on The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and Hall of the Fire Giant King!

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…