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…