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 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!

GaryCon XIII, Day 3

For the third day of GaryCon I participated in a six hour Swords & Wizardry game – Rogues in Remballo.

This morning when I was preparing to get on Discord for my fourth game for this Con and my third in the Swords & Wizardry (S&W) game system I realized that I had unintentionally selected different styles of games for each day.
– Thursday: the two S&W games I played were underground dungeon crawls.
– Friday: the Castles & Crusades game I played was entirely outdoors and involved climbing cliffs and aerial assaults.
– Saturday: today my S&W game took place in a city involving lots of role-playing and puzzle solving.
– Sunday: tomorrow the Dungeon Crawl Classics game I will play in will be of mixed setting, as we begin in a tavern and then head into the sewers and the underworld.

Although I didn’t plan this, this has actually been quite enjoyable and I like the change of environments for each game, for I get to explore a plethora of challenges. Steve Chenault’s game reinforced for me the importance of using environment and I look forward to elevating that element of my game. Since I already use weather conditions in my game, further enhancing the physical environment is the next step I want to take to further enhance my game. But unlike weather, which is more of an outdoor phenomena, terrain is something that you encounter under ground as well (I think most prominently of the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide from AD&D as one of the top resources for this, which, it just so happens, is getting an homage and update in Kickstarter right now as the Survivalist’s Guide to Spelunking for DnD 5th Edition).

Rogues in Remballo was the S&W city adventure that I played today. I was specifically looking to play this game for one big reason. Playing in this game would serve as a great introduction to the Borderland Provinces within the Lost Lands campaign setting by Frog God Games. I own most of the Lost Lands material and have read through much of it, but you learn best not just by reading, but by doing, so I saw this as a great opportunity to get thrown right into the setting and learn about the city, the organizations, and local political color. I chose right.

When doing a city-based adventure which would have role-playing and puzzle solving, you need to allow extra time, and so the GM was wise to make this a six hour adventure. We spent the first three hours just navigating a small district within the city and through each interaction with an NPC stable-hand, barkeep, shopkeeper, and captain of the guard, we picked up snippets of information which led to the final three hours of taking on the villains and monsters of the adventure.

There was one major problem I experienced during this six hour game. At about the 3 hour mark there was a power went out (it effected more than 5,000 people in the area where I lived), and it took about an hour for the power to get restored. When I was able to return to the game roughly an hour later the role-playing had come to an end (they had gathered all the information they needed to find the people causing the trouble we were tasked with solving), and the combat portion of the game had begun. The final couple of hours were filled with great combat and even further negotiations with rogues from rival guilds pleading for their lives.

This was an all-around great game. I acquired some great insights into the Lost Lands, enjoyed a well laid-out city adventure with a marvelous balance of role-playing, problem-solving, and combat. I can easily see each GM emphasizing different aspects of the game depending on whether the players are interested or good at roleplaying, and the order and approach the players take in interacting with the abundant NPCs within the district and town. As a result, this makes a great convention game, for it can take many different turns and directions each time it is run. I will likely want to play in this again (if for no other reason than to enjoy it in its entirety and not miss out due to a power cut!).

GaryCon XIII, Day 1

Summary:
Physical vs. Online conventions and how I might deal in the future with conventions when it comes to badge access. The joy of playing in two Swords & Wizardry games. Digital vs. Physical dice rolling in virtual games.

Gaming Conventions
I love GaryCon. It is a real pleasure to meet different game designers and artists, purchase a load of products, game constantly for several days, meet new people, and try out new game systems. I typically attend three cons each year – Con of the North (in my native Minnesota just a few minutes from where I live) in February, GaryCon in March, and GameHole in October/November.

It was at GameHole last autumn where I experienced my first full virtual convention (due to the pandemic). I actually very much enjoyed the experience, but obviously gaming virtually is different than gaming in person and there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches. The bad part of virtual games includes not being able to hang out and chat with players/GMs before and after the game and not having a physical vendor area where you can page through books and talk with the designers. The socializing at a physical gaming convention is a genuinely wonderful thing that virtual gaming can’t match.

On the other hand, a benefit of virtual gaming is that if you can’t travel to a convention or can’t afford the trip, then nothing can be easier than gaming from your own home with people from around the country and the world. It is so convenient and saves so much money.

Convention Badges
One positive thing that has happened as a result of pandemic life is the acceleration of certain trends in gaming, such as gaming online, which has in turn pushed forth innovations in the technology which makes this possible. When things return to ‘normal’ I suspect that gaming conventions from now on will include a selection of virtual gaming options for those that can’t attend in person.

In the future I do look forward to a return to physically attending Con of the North, GaryCon, and GameHole (and consider virtual options for conventions in other parts of the country). But, with all the time and money I have saved by doing GameHole and GaryCon virtually over the last six months, I may consider whether the immense cost in time and money is worth it if I am not able to get into the games I want. For example, I have an Ethereal Badge for GaryCon and that meant that others with better badges (e.g. Astral and Elemental) were able to choose their games first. The majority of the games I got into at this GaryCon were not my first choices. I have continually had bad luck trying to get the better badges (they’ve always been sold out before I could get them). I am getting more and more energized and excited about gaming conventions with every passing year and so this inability to get better badges and thus get into the games I want is becoming an ever increasing frustration. In the past you’d just have to suck it up and accept it simply as “the way things work”, but the pandemic has made me aware of how important my time and money is and I am seeking an alternative.

Attending a physical game convention is quite an undertaking when it comes to drive time (I have to take an extra day off of work just to travel to the convention), and money when it comes to car wear-and-tear, petrol, hotel, eating out, etc. Those expenses add up if you’re doing them several times each year. So if I have 6-8 games I want to be in, and I only get 1 or 2 of them and the rest are options b, c, or d, then my enthusiasm drops and my desire to engage in all that extra expense in time and money drops as well. Getting stuck with a lesser badge in the future will probably play a role as to whether I will spend the hundreds of extra dollars and take extra time off of work to physically attend the convention, or instead save my vacation days and hundreds of dollars and just stay home and do it virtually. I would love to hang out with old friends and meet new ones, and that is worth a lot in friendship and socializing, but knowing that most of my games are “leftovers” takes some of the enjoyment away and I now realize that I don’t have to accept that – there is now an alternative. Gaming at home virtually without that investment of time and money makes the letdown much easier to take.

Gaming, Day 1

For Day 1 I was signed up to two Swords & Wizardry games. Both GM’s were great and I was excited to get more S&W gaming done. Hall of Bones was my first S&W game of the day. It actually wasn’t my first choice as most of the games I wanted to get into for GaryCon XIII were already taken when I was eligible to get my tickets (as I noted above). However, I had played Hall of Bones virtually last autumn at GameHole with the same GM, so I knew this was going to be a fun game. I was also using a different character and was with an entirely different group of players. I enjoyed the challenge of having a new character with new players and trying not to metagame. This game session did go slower than the first time I went through it and I noticed that to ensure we could all experience the final encounter the GM removed a couple of dungeon chambers. The other players, if they had never done this adventure before, wouldn’t know this, but I did. But as a GM you sometimes have to speed things up and remove certain things to get players to where they need to be. I understand and appreciate that. In the end, I enjoyed this adventure as much the second time as I did the first time. I look forward to gaming with this GM in person some day.

My second S&W game was Orcus on 34th Level. This was once again not my first choice of game to play, but I genuinely enjoyed myself, and the GM was exceptional. It was an Xmas-themed game that was a little tongue-in-cheek. It was a mixture of being both silly and dark. The GM was damn good, perhaps one of the best GMs that I’ve had. Consider: how often has a GM begun to describe a room and as they do so you are formulating clarificatory questions regarding the room features as follow up? This GM somehow managed to describe the rooms and provide the necessary details relevant for a character as to how it impacts their sight, movement, hearing, etc., all in one go. I was really impressed by their skill. I run two campaigns of my own six times a month and when I can find a GM which can help me elevate the quality of my game, I take note! Of course, one of the other benefits of gaming with a wide variety of people is seeing creativity from other players, since that can also help me as a player and GM to broaden my creative gaming toolkit. This is also a GM I will look forward to joining at a physical table in a future convention.

Digital vs. Physical Dice Rolling
One final thing that stands out when it comes to my enjoyment of a virtual game is whether the dice rolling is physical or digital. I hate digital dice rolling. For me one of the most enjoyable experiences of partaking in a table-top role-playing games is holding and feeling the weight and texture of dice in my hands, rolling them on the table, dice tray, or in a dice tower, hearing the sounds they make, and seeing the result. That means a lot to me and really puts me into the moment (I also have a nice dice collection and I want to use them!). Pushing some stupid button on my keyboard and seeing a number appear on my monitor does absolutely nothing for me, indeed, it pulls me away from the moment. I guess we all have things that get on our nerves and under our skin, and digital dice rolling is one that really bothers me. My response to digital dice rolling is probably silly or irrational, and this will make my life more difficult in an ever expanding virtual gaming environment. On the other hand, I don’t think I am alone in my love for holding physical dice, since one of the most popular crowdfunding projects you see are RPG dice Kickstarters, they almost always well exceed their funding goal.

Character Creation Challenge: Swords & Wizardry

I love the evocative old school feel of Swords & Wizardry. Unlike many of the previous games I covered in this series – Blueholme, Labyrinth Lord, Rules Cyclopedia, and Old School Essentials – where I own and have read through the game, but never made a character, Swords & Wizardry (S&W) is a system that I have played a couple of times before (at GaryCon and GameHole), so I do have some experience in the character creation process.

Swords & Wizardry Complete and my Druid character, Ronan.

I decided I wanted to make a druid, but when I rolled 3d6 six times I didn’t get two 13+ attributes I needed for a druid (you need at least two 13’s for the prime requisites of Wisdom and Charisma). I rolled two more sets of attributes before I finally got two numbers that could meet that requirement. Since S&W has such a close affinity with D&D from 1974-1978, character creation is quite simple. I like how once I distributed my stats all the essential information that I needed to make note of from those stats could be placed within a box to the right of them. After that I wrote down a few druid class abilities (neutral alignment, spellcasting – I get one spell, and noted my +2 on saves versus fire). There is only one saving throw number to note in S&W, so that keeps things simple. I rolled my starting money (3d6x10) and only got 40 gold pieces, but luckily being a druid I don’t need much, so I bought a spear, sling, leather armor, and some basic supplies and I still had 23gp left over. I rolled my hit points and noted my armor class. All done, he’s ready for an adventure! Now if only there were some upcoming S&W game I could play in for Con of the North or GaryCon.

My Druid, Ronan Coglan.

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…