Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 4: Final Loot

Summary:
It was great to be at my first physical convention in 20 months. Interaction is a lot better face-to-face than online. I met old friends and made new friends. Loot was less than previous conventions, but (re)meeting vendors in Dealer Hall was something I welcomed.

The Last Day.
This morning involved a short visit to the lobby where a Castles & Crusades game was being run by one of the new friends I made at Gamehole 2021 (he ran a Swords & Wizardry game a few days before that was my most enjoyable game of this convention). I couldn’t stick around for his game since I had to drive back to Minnesota, complete some tasks at home, and then wind down, but I wanted to touch base one more time and see another C&C game in action.

I then made one more visit to the Dealer Hall and went straight to Black Oak Workshop booth. Craig Zipse (who owns Black Oak Workshop) is a great guy, makes some unique dice, and my last purchase of the convention before I headed back to my car to drive home was one of his fun Advent-ure Calendars and a dice set. The Advent-ure calandars began as holiday themed boxes where each day of the month you open a little box and a wonderful die lies waiting to be revealed. I have purchased previous Christmas themed calendars for December and I love my daily dice present! I felt this was a great way to end the convention – setting myself up for a daily Christmas present for the month of December.

I have had some serious set back in recent months. I fractured my humerus in a fall back in June and I had to have surgery for a titanium rod to be put in to correct it. I also don’t have medical insurance. Thus, as I slowly gain the ability to lift things again, regain some flexibility, and worry about how I am supposed to deal with medical bills in the 10s of thousands of dollars, I am physically and financially restricted for the foreseeable future (Gamehole was my first major outing, not only since the pandemic began, but just as importantly, since I was handicapped from my injury in June and restricted in what I could do). It is the small things in life – like knowing I will get a nice die each day of the month during December – that brighten my day.

Black Oak Workshop products as I prepare for my Christmas presents!

Overall loot was down from previous conventions. One reason is that I own pretty much all that I want or need. Secondly, is that I need to conserve money as I still don’t know how the hospital bills will be dealt with. I really needed this holiday and getaway. It is no longer the quantity of the loot I acquire, but the quality.

Total loot from Gamehole 2021. Black Oak Workshop. Fate of the Norns, and Frog God Games, dominate.

During this convention I welcomed talking with old friends and making some new ones. There are now new GMs that I will be seeking out at future conventions.

What about future conventions?

Con of the North (just a few minutes from my house) is in February (18-20). Gary Con would normally be what I visit in March, but I couldn’t get the hotels I want that connect with Gary Con or offer shuttle service to the convention, so I have decided not to go. I know that the people who run it want it to remain in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, but I honestly don’t care about that. I’d rather they put the convention in a city that can actually house the attendees. But that seems unlikely, so I might be cutting Gary Con out of my convention rotation if it continues to be a hassle. Honestly, Con of the North at the beginning of the year and Gamehole at the end might be enough for me. Some folk have told me I need to attend North Texas RPG Con, but I want to attend conventions I can drive to in a reasonable amount of time. Texas is too far away.

So, now I get to wind down from the last five days traveling and convention attendance.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 3

Summary:
My last full day of gaming.
1. Played in the first game of the convention (S&W) that I didn’t enjoy that much, and I am reminded of some of the things in OSR games I don’t care for.
2. Munchkin, my last game of the convention was great fun.
3. Why are there nearly plague levels of flies in Madison, WI?

Swords & Wizardry game
My first game of the day was a S&W game. But this game experience was a bit of a let down for me.

First, I was expecting more traditional fantasy and this game ended up with us flying rockets in space. I wasn’t interested in that and if I knew that was what we were going to do I would not have signed up for the game. Thus, this was a game that right away I realized I was not interested in.

Second, in some ways a lot happened in the session and in some ways very little happened. There is an attitude in OSR games that unlike Pathfinder and D&D 5E where you look at your character sheet to see what you can do, in OSR games you rely on player creativity. In this game there was so much player creativity and player problem solving, no one had to roll a die for the first two hours of the four hour game! Our race and class were for the most part irrelevant – we almost didn’t need a character sheet! I didn’t make my first die roll until hour three, and it was only in the last 20 minutes of the game when I did anything of any importance or significance. I was not expecting to just solve puzzles for four hours using my own thinking – I created a character for a reason!

It’s funny how just a few days ago I was in a Savage Worlds game where the GM said we would determine the narrative, but more often than not as soon as a player described what they wanted to do, he had us roll a die and if we rolled badly then all that roleplaying was discarded. So, a lot of player narrative was simply a waste of time in that game if it was ignored when the die was rolled. In this game we hardly rolled the dice at all, it was the opposite problem from the Savage Worlds game.

Third, since this was an old school game OD&D-type game, everything was considered potentially an instant death scenario, or hugely debilitating. As such, people were extremely cautious and talked through things endlessly (what you might call “paralysis by analysis”). We didn’t travel that far in four hours of gaming, exploring perhaps a half a dozen rooms. It would’ve been nice for some people to simply roll a check once in a while to see if anything could be discovered and then move on. Because of this I was bored for extended periods of time.

If one of the problems with modern D&D 5E-style gaming is that combat can last forever as every player is focused on their character sheet trying to find all the different things they might be able to do in their combat action, move action, bonus action, reaction, etc. (I was once part of an adventuring party where it took 3 hours to fight 12 orcs in the woods!), then the place where OSR games can get bogged down is when players won’t do anything since any action could mean instant death, or limb loss, or insanity, etc. I don’t like 5E situations where there is no danger or consequences to actions, and I also don’t like the other extreme where every action could mean instant death. Neither is fun for me. I lean toward old school, obviously, but I want some balance.

Fourth, about half the players had been in this GMs games for many years and several had moleskine notebooks filled with notes, hand-drawn maps, sketches, etc. I had only played with this GM once before several years ago and the same “insider” feeling existed then as well. Don’t get me wrong, these folk were extremely friendly and helpful, but when you add in the factors I mentioned above, I mostly just sat back and watched as a passive viewer this tight gang of players who knew each other, the GM, and the on-going campaign so intimately simply continue the adventures they had been doing for years.

Fifth, we were in a small room by ourselves, and with noise coming from the lobby, at one point someone closed the doors, half the people had their masks off (the reason was for eating and drinking), and I was sitting next to one older man who coughed a lot and whenever he coughed he would take off his mask and try to cough into his hand?! The room was also poorly ventilated. I was not comfortable being in a poorly ventilated room with people I don’t know eating, drinking, coughing, and laughing spewing forth…”stuff.” I am a bit of a germaphobe under normal conditions, but under the pandemic situation we are currently in, I was not comfortable.

For all the above reasons this was overall not a very enjoyable experience for me.

Munchkin game
After a few hour break I came back in the evening for my final game to “learn how to play Munchkin.” I had played it once in 2008 when I was in graduate school in Scotland, but it had been a long time and I wanted a new experience. The person who instructed us was really good. She gave us some free cards, a play mat to hold the cards, player aid handout sheets, and a wooden token to keep track of level-ups. This introductory session was really well organized, presented, and taught. We got an overview of the game, did a practice session, and then began a full-on session until our time ran out.

I am not really a card game sort of guy (I don’t enjoy any card games to be honest, whether Magic: The Gathering, or Poker), the last time I enjoyed a card game was probably UNO back when I was 10 years old. But this Munchkin game was fun, so with the gaming society she is a part of – and which usually get a large room to themselves during Gamehole – I will consider making a Munchkin game a part of future visits to Gamehole.

Cool free Munchkin goodies from my “Learn to Play Munchkin” session.

Flies
From the moment I arrived in Madison on Wednesday, I was taken aback by the huge quantity of flies that are to be found EVERYWHERE. You can’t escape them. On Wednesday evening I had dinner at Liberty Station and there were dozens upon dozens of flies on the windows, tables, food, drinks, etc. At the Alliant Energy Center where this convention took place there were flies outside and inside. I can’t believe it. I have seen more flies since Wednesday than I have seen all year in Minnesota. Now, being from Minnesota I could easily make some reference as to why such disgusting insects flourish so freely in Wisconsin, but I shall refrain and let you all come to your own conclusions why beautiful Minnesota is so fly free compared to Wisconsin.

Preparing for the final day tomorrow
Tomorrow is the last day of Gamehole Con. I was going to try and sneak in a Castles & Crusades game in the morning, but it is four hours long and I have things to do once I get back to Minnesota and that will be a five hour drive, plus, even though the Munchkin game was fun, the S&W game deflated me in a lot of ways and I am ready to go home. In my first Gamehole 2021 blog post on Wednesday I expressed my growing disappointment with some aspects of the OSR, then over Thursday and Friday my energy and hope was renewed for old-school gaming, and then today some of that disappointment returned. I will visit the Dealer Hall one last time in the morning and then I will head out for the drive home.

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 2

Summary:
I expand my Frog God Game (FGG) selection of excellent products as well as some marvelous new dice that allow me to create things spontaneously on the fly in my C&C games. I had an incredible time in an Old School Essentials (OSE) game (Palace of the Silver Princess) in the morning and a Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game (Baron’s Gambit) in the afternoon.

New Products.
First, my loot for the day. The “Tome of Horrors 2020” expands my monster selection. There are some true bastards in this book ready to be unleashed on my players (with some truly stellar artwork!). The new demonic creatures and fey will be great additions to my games. The new “Torchlight” zine made for S&W (but easily useable for any OSR game) provides some nice options for torchbearers, alternate thief abilities, and a way to do “social combat.” “The Tome of Blighted Horrors” introduces more horrific monster additions to a game. I got a Lost Lands world map. And finally, I got some specialty dice so that I can create a random dungeon in real time simply based on die rolls, add traps on the fly with a die rolls, and several dice that allow me to randomly roll up an NPCs race and class. The race and class dice are made for 5E, but I can just swap out the 5E race/classes for something C&C specific. I love dice that allow me to improv on the spot and these now add more options to my repertoire.

OSE game
As for my gaming today, in the morning I played OSE for the first time. I own all the books and love these neatly organized and richly illustrated tomes based on B/X D&D created by Gavin Norman of Necrotic Gnome. This morning I finally got to play the game. It was also fun to experience it through the classic D&D adventure “Palace of the Silver Princess.” The adventure is your typical adventure from the early 80s with a castle layout that doesn’t make much logical sense, and we all had our characters laugh and roll their eyes at whoever the madman was who had been hired to lay out and create the palace and dungeon. I had an elf, and both me and another elf in the party tag-teamed listening at doors, and there were A Lot Of Doors! We were also reminded of one of the most important OSR rules – if you can avoid combat, it means you stay alive longer. I lost track of how many times we opened a door, saw what we would have to fight, realized that we preferred to live a little bit longer, and closed the door again (sealing it with a couple of hammered-in iron spikes)!

S&W game
I visited Dealer Hall in the afternoon and chatted with more vendors and game designers as well as pick up a few more items.

Then for the late afternoon it was time for my S&W game of the day. I once again had a great bunch of players to adventure with. I have been truly fortunate to have been with such great players so far, and this game took it even further. Puns and play-on-words were non-stop, our GM was also a great on-the-fly referee who lived in the moment and improved things on the spot. This is my GMing style and I love to be able to see other successful improv GMs practice their trade. Being with good GMs and players not only makes the adventure fun, but it can inspire you as both a GM and player. After spending so much time during this pandemic gaming either online, or in small groups in my home, I have welcomed the opportunity to game in person again and embrace the face-to-face gaming experience which simply can’t be beat.

As for the adventure, “Baron’s Gambit” is a straightforward enough and fun adventure that is a great way to introduce players to the S&W game, and do to our great success with two monks, a thief, an assassin, and a dwarf fighter, we intelligently went through all the challenges and the game ended early. But we had such a great time that several of us hung out and had a great chat and drink afterward. The referee is also running a Castles & Crusades game on Sunday and even though it is currently full, I will most likely be able to sit in on his C&C game. So, I look forward to this new game which is firmly in my area of expertise!

From this S&W game I once saw how the flexibility of an OSR game shines through. S&W doesn’t have a formal skill system, so if you want to attempt something, you present your idea to the referee and they either let you do it after you’ve described how you hope to accomplish it, or they come up with a die roll to resolve the situation. The spontaneity of it keeps the game fresh and always new. I really enjoy playing old school games at conventions where you rely on your imagination and not on what you are forced to adhere to on your character. Although the C&C games I run allow the use of a general attribute check if one is needed for a task (it is a nice mid-point between high crunch games like 3E/Pathfinder and no formal skill system games like S&W), at conventions I lean more toward gaming with the least amount of rules that slow you down and prevent you from gaming.

Tomorrow I game in Matt Finch’s always great Mythrus Tower S&W game and then play some Munchkin in the early evening!

Gamehole 2021 Diary, Day 1

Summary:
1. I play in a Swords & Wizardry and a Savage Worlds game.
2. Spend hours speaking with vendors and game designers in Dealer Hall, lightly expand my art and game collection and review Alayna Danner art and Fate of the Norns books (and discuss my love of back-to-basics folk-lore inspired RPGs).

Swords & Wizardry game.
I arrive in Madison, WI, yesterday and registered. Today was my first day of gaming. In the morning I had a S&W game. It was a short 2 hour game called Turf War where we were recruited to look into a gang that was looking to rough up some people in a rival establishment. Lethal combat was not necessary (nonlethal combat would be sufficient). We had some great players who enjoyed trying things out, since this game could emphasize roleplaying over combat, we could focus on where we wanted to be for observation and were all pretty spread out over a neighborhood map. But I had a dwarf fighter with single digit intelligence and wisdom, so after a leader of a rival group came in to the establishment to have his ruffians push people around, Bork, the dwarf, just went up and stabbed the guy with his longsword (instead of using his brass knuckles like the ruffians). And that pretty much determined the flow of the remainder of the adventure as things became serious very quickly. Town guard were called in by one character. Another charmed a gang member and led a group of them on a wild goose chase all over the place, and another threw in smoke bombs to obscure things. My dwarf died in combat (the only casualty of the group), but it was great fun with some great players!

Dealer Hall.
After that game ended before noon, I had seven hours before my next game, so it was time for a quick lunch and then dedicate a few hours to catching up with old acquaintances in the gaming hall and meeting some new people.

I could go on for a long time on this, but I will just hit the highlights. I got to catch up with the folks at dozens of booths, including Frog God Games, Kobold Press, Pacesetter Games, Black Oak Workshop, Alayna Danner (illustrator), and Fate of the Norns. I spent four hours chatting with these fine folk.

Alayna Danner.
At previous Gary Cons and GameHole Cons I had acquired art from Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, and Darlene (the artists that defined what D&D was for me when I first began gaming in 1983). However, I didn’t want to neglect the great artists of today! Alayna Danner has done past work for Troll Lord Games, but now is an important Wizards of the Coast illustrator for D&D 5E and Magic: The Gathering. I’ve enjoyed her art a lot and after struggling with what piece of art I wanted to purchase, picked up a print that was made for MtG. I must admit I know nothing about MtG or the cityscape of Ravnica, but I look forward to taking that piece of art and letting it lead me to my own imaginary place (I am currently viewing the piece – shown below – as an elven city). Ravnica fans will get one perspective from it, I am going to get another. That’s the joy of art, we can all interpret it differently!

Fate of the Norns.
There is an RPG called Fate of the Norns. If you buy the game itself, it is a dice less game that promotes a lot of freedom of choice in what you do. I had always browsed through their unique books, but they can be expensive and I would want to play the system at a Con before I made a commitment to buy their system. But they have continued to expand what they offer and now have system neutral products like the Celtic Cyclopedia, fresh translations of the Eddas (which have impressed some Norse scholars), and there are also new 5E offerings, including a book of Fairy Tales and Myths. With 5E game stats I now have something which I can use for my Castles & Crusades games, so with system neutral and 5E products, I have more I can work with. But what makes this material stand out is the approach it takes with folk lore and mythology, and the art style.

When I left 5E I initially went old school, thus, there was a shift from, for example, full reptile kobolds to the older dog-like kobolds. But in European folklore, kobolds are neither reptile nor dog-like. I had enjoyed the initial shift back to B/X or 1E kobolds, but what I really want is to go back to the folk tale source material and then go in a new direction. Another example is the D&D duergar. They do not resemble the creatures that inspired them. The only game products that I am aware of that have attempted to seriously present respectful folk-lore inspired versions are the Codex Nordica, Germania, Slavorum, etc. from Troll Lord Games. But Fate of the Norns has now done an amazing job going to the source material and giving us a completely new look at creatures like kobolds and duergar. More than that, the art is neither modern D&D art, nor old school art, it has its own look that stands out on its own. I really appreciate the attempt to go to the source and then do something new and original. I will enjoy working my way through these books to pull forth new insights to move beyond what I am presented with in 5E and the OSR.

GameHoleCon, Day 1

Savage Worlds game.
In the evening I returned to gaming using the Savage Worlds system. I had heard a lot about it before and looked forward to a game emphasizing narrative, storytelling, and “exploding” dice. It was a five hour game with only about two combats, so it was mostly roleplaying and investigation, as a result it required more attention than some other games. But by this point in the evening (18:00-23:00) I was pretty knackered from gaming and hours of socializing, so my batteries were a bit low, thus my roleplaying was not what it normally could have been.

Still, in spite of being tired, I did enjoy the game. I liked the experience of rolling dice and if you roll the max on that die you roll again (thus, if I rolled a d6 and I rolled 6, I would roll another d6, and if I rolled a 6 again, I would roll and add yet another d6, etc., each time adding these numbers together), as a result things can escalate quickly!

This is also a game where the character sheet does not tell you all that you can do, if you want to try something, bring it up and state what you think you should roll to get that task done. This is nice, however, Savage Worlds does fall into an issue I see in D&D, in that someone may come up with a brilliant idea and then roleplay out a scenario we all laugh and enjoy, and then the GM asks the person to roll a die and if they roll badly then that great idea and the accompanying roleplaying amounted to nothing. In C&C there have been times where a player has told me they wanted to try something and if they idea is really great I either give it to them as a success, or I have them roll and I make the challenge level really low so that the possibility of failure is very small. I realize that I don’t do this often enough, but that is what I strive for – for it is a role playing game! In the case of this Savage World game, some players had some amazing ideas, but then horrific die rolls caused all their creativity to come crashing to the ground. Sometimes it can be fun to come up with an idea for a character action, fail miserably at it due to a bad die roll and then have to improv how their idea managed to fail so badly, so I don’t deny that this can be fun as well, but I still haven’t found the right way to balance between a player coming up with a great idea to explore, investigate, or roleplay, and rolling dice.

This game was fun and I will probably try Savage Worlds again, but will attempt to plan it earlier in the day when I am more alert.

For Day 2 I will be playing in an Old School Essentials game and another Swords & Wizardry game.

Gamehole 2021 Diary: Arrival

Summary:
1. I arrive in Madison, Wisconsin, and check-in for Gamehole.
2. I ponder what I might buy in the Dealer Hall in the coming days.
3. I reflect on a growing dissatisfaction I am having with a segment of the OSR.

I enjoyed a most relaxing 5 hour drive to Madison, Wisconsin from Minnesota. The weather was cool with a brief encounter with rain, and the leaves were an array of yellows, oranges, and red. After checking in at my hotel I headed over to the Alliant Energy Center to check in. Checking in was quick and easy and I enjoyed a wee wander about to refamiliarize myself with where things will be over the next four days.

One thing that did catch my eye was the massive beholder in the Dealer Hall! Luckily, I survived the encounter and will be returning tomorrow to provided merchants with my hard earned coin in exchange for their finely crafted products!

What do I plan to buy at Gamehole this year? Well, Troll Lord Games (TLG), Frog God Games (FGG), Goodman Games, and Nord Games are companies where I previously purchased the most merchandise and I now, frankly, have most of what they offer. However, TLG, Goodman, and Nord are not here this year, so I couldn’t buy anything from them even if I wanted.

Since I will be unable to chat with most of the folks from these companies, I am going to take advantage of their absence to meet other vendors and perhaps forge new relationships that can take me in new directions. Along with the companies I mentioned above, I quite enjoy the creative output of Kobold Press. They, like Nord games, make 5E material, but I like the twist they give things.

I am also beginning to feel a distance growing between myself and the OSR.

Let me explain. There are at least two types of OSR folk I encounter:

i. Those gamers that never stopped playing their favorite old school game (e.g. AD&D 1E, B/X, OD&D, etc.).

ii. Those that continued gaming through most editions, then left the hobby for a while, and then returned later.

All the people I gamed with in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s are in category (ii). We played BECMI, AD&D 1E, 2E, and moved to D&D 3E. It was in 3E, however, where we grew disillusioned and all left RPG gaming at roughly the same time (c.2007). 4E held no interest for us when it appeared, and Pathfinder was just more 3E.

What brought us back to tabletop RPG gaming?

D&D 5E.

Compared to 3E/4E/Pathfinder, 5E was a throwback to old school (something that was talked about a lot in 2014-2015 but is now strangely forgotten by many). I ran and played 5E pretty heavily until 2018, when I then grew disillusioned with it and made the shift to the OSR. It should be noted, though, that all my 80s, 90s, and early 00s friends continue to play – and love – 5E and have no interest in going back to the games of their youth. When I made the shift to the OSR I had to find completely new players for my games. Funny enough, the most energetic players I have in my Castles & Crusades games are players in their teens and 20s! So on a weekly basis I am surrounded by the youthful excitement of the 5E/Pathfinder generation.

This obviously has effected my view of gaming. For example, I haven’t met a single 5E/Pathfinder player that has anything bad to say about old school gaming or gamers, I have, however, heard substantial amounts of moaning from some old school gamers about the 5E generation of players, WotC, etc. And since I do know 5E somewhat well from the half decade I ran and played it, those that complain the most about 5E are usually the most uninformed about what they talk about. These OSR folk may be a minority, but I think they are a growing voice in the OSR community. Some seem to get enjoyment out of denigrating the new RPG players out there and I am just getting weary of it all (and you don’t have to bring up the whole “cancel culture” response, I have heard all of that before).

I still love old school game play. I own enough material just from TLG and FGG to run weekly games for the next one to two decades! But I am now broadening my perspective on what gaming material I will be drawing upon.

WotC is, for the most part, not producing products that interest me, but third-party 5E publishers are coming up with some exciting material I can use. When I wandered past the Kobold Press booth this afternoon as they were setting up, I realized that I will be giving them several visits over the next few days and may be further building up my library of Kobold Press goodies.

Also, with a substantial academic background in various areas of philosophy and history, I am now mostly doing my own research and game creation, so that is making it easier for me to do my own thing and distance myself from the community with which I feel I am losing a connection.

I seem to find myself in a strange place. I don’t want to go back to 5E. I have no interest in Pathfinder. And the OSR is becoming alienating. Is there a mid-point between 5E and the OSR? I get the feeling that if there is I am now moving onto that path, I just don’t know where it will take me.

With that being said, I am playing a half-dozen old school Swords & Wizardry and Old School Essentials games this week, so maybe I will encounter good OSR folk that will rebuild my faith in the OSR community of GMs and players.

Gamehole Con 2021 approaches!

Gamehole Con 2021 is coming (21-24 October) and I am excited!
Today’s Topics: Swords & Wizardry, Old School Essentials, Savage Worlds, Munchkin, Adventures Dark & Deep, Exhibitor Hall.

I haven’t been to a physical convention since Con of the North in February of 2020. The virtual cons over the last year and eight months have been fun in their own way, so I will probably make use of them in the future if I am unable to attend physically (However, I will not be attending Gary Con XIV in person in 2021, so I have been hoping virtual Gary Con goes forward, but sadly it currently only looks like 14 people have signed up for Ethereal Gary Con so far, so I may not even get to participate in Gary Con online next year).

For this upcoming Gamehole I was saddened to not see Castles & Crusades games being offered. I could, of course, run my own C&C games (friends have asked me to do so), however, I run six games in two C&C campaigns each month, that means I run up to 72 C&C games each year, that is a lot of C&C games! So, I use gaming conventions as my time to relax from the pressure of being a GM and just be a player in someone else’s game.

I also love to play different types of games to broaden my perspective on rules and rulings that might come in handy for my C&C game. At Con of the North, Dungeon Crawl Classics has a strong presence, so I get a heavy dose of DCC at that convention, and I expect to again this upcoming February. This time at Gamehole the games I am playing are heavily focused on Swords & Wizardry (S&W) (three games, including the classic Mythrus Tower with Matt Finch), an Old School Essentials (OSE) game, a Savage Worlds game, and a fun session of Munchkin.

As you can see, I will be wearing my shirts promoting the greatest of all RPGs – Castles & Crusades – but I am bringing my S&W and OSE books to use at the gaming tables.

Swords & Wizardry
S&W is a fun game and I look forward to three solid games. Three S&W games will be the most S&W I’ve played at a single convention. It can be fun to immerse yourself in one system (much like I do DCC at Con of the North).

Old School Essentials
I am surprised that OSE doesn’t have more people running the system (I think there was only the one OSE game offered at Gamehole – the one I got in) considering that most OSR designers are now making their games OSE-compatible, OSE games should be offered more at conventions. OSE is a great system and I want to use my OSE books, so we need more people at conventions to run OSE!

Savage Worlds
I’ve never played Savage Worlds before. I’ve heard a lot about it, though, so I am long overdue to get a feel for what it can offer.

Munchkin
I only played Munchkin a couple of times in 2008 when I had moved to St Andrews, Scotland, to pursue my Masters degree. One of my fellow graduate students from Poland was a huge role-player and he introduced a bunch of us to Munchkin. Unfortunately, the Masters programme was grueling and I had to drop gaming to focus on my studies. So, after 13 years I look forward to trying Munchkin out again.

Adventures Dark and Deep
This is more of a public service announcement. I love this game. I wish there was more love for Joseph Bloch’s Adventures Dark and Deep (ADD). I have yet to see anyone run ADD at the cons I visit. I want to play ADD. So, if there is anyone out there who also loves ADD and wants to run it at Gamehole or Con of the North in the future, contact me – I will join your game!

Exhibitors
When I checked the exhibitor information at Gamehole, I was sad to see that Troll Lord Games and Goodman Games won’t have a location in the Dealer Hall this year (they normally have double-sized booths). It is always a joy to talk with the Troll Lords, and Goodman Games and the people at their table are also great people to chat with. On the other hand, that just means I get to spend my time – and money – in the Dealer Hall on companies and products that I have previously overlooked! Having said that, I have spent far too much money on RPGs and I have already shut down my Indiegogo account and my Kickstarter account will be shutdown early next year as I focus on what I already own. Still, there are so many enticing things to find at a convention, so we will see by next Sunday evening how good I was at resisting the new trinkets, bits and bobs that will be calling out my name in the Dealer Hall!

The Drive
I am heading out for the roughly 4.5 hour drive from where I live in Minnesota to Madison, Wisconsin on Wednesday. The lovely autumn coolness and the leaves changing color should make the journey there fun! Maybe I will see some of you there!

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…