Thursday, August 2, 2018

My Four Landmark Campaigns

It occurred to me today that I've been a RPG gamer for 36 non-stop years now. GenCon, a four-day gaming convention, is going on right now. If I had my own four-day gaming convention, each day dedicated to nine years of the time I've been a gamer, what games would be played on each day?

My first nine years were 1982-1991. During this time, campaign play was almost unheard of in our gaming community until 1988, with most of us only played one-off published modules.  My first attempt at a campaign in 1990 was really just the Fate of Istus super-module (with some Dungeon magazine filler stringing Rookroost and Rel Mord together) -- and it was not until 1991 when I started my first ambitious campaigns, the City of Greyhawk (AD&D 1st ed.) campaign and the Wimpy Tales (Marvel Super Heroes) campaign. Neither was very long (the City of Greyhawk campaign never saw anyone rise past 4th level), but they were elaborate in a way I've seldom had time to duplicate since.

The Wimpy Tales campaign (for at least the first two sessions) had their own comic book covers I drew. It avoided the pitfalls of the MSH rules for higher-powered characters by keeping everything, well, wimpy. It studiously clung to comic book continuity, while its lighthearted tone (until the Maggia scenario that killed the campaign) made it accessible to players who didn't read the comic books.

But even more ambitious was the City of Greyhawk campaign. Though the meat of the campaign was the City of Greyhawk boxed set combined with the adventure super-module Greyhawk Ruins, and a smattering of Dungeon magazine offerings for side quests, what made this campaign special was that it was really five different solo campaigns, each with its own cast of characters and ongoing plots, and the player-characters only crossed over and teamed up as needed. We had some pairings on some adventures, and a single case when three players all teamed up together. There were ambitious storylines, like the wild magic surge/time travel adventure that allowed Perrin the elven thief to confront the killer of his parents, too late to save them. I have never had the time to achieve that level of complexity since.

My next nine years were 1991-2000.  During this time I ran Forgettable Realms, a Wimpy Tales-like campaign using D&D; started and aborted an ambitious Pendragon campaign; but my greatest achievement -- my most successful campaign ever -- was the South Province campaign (AD&D 1st ed.) that I started during this stretch. Running from 1997 to 2005 (eight years, though I have long mistakenly remembered it lasting ten), South Province had 14 players over the course of the campaign, had one character reach 10th level, and a compelling story arc that ended with the heroes confronting and besting the evil herzog of the province. In some ways it was City of Greyhawk-lite -- there were character-specific supporting cast and subplots, and characters sometimes spent weeks of game time separated on different tasks, but it was understood that everyone was part of a group (the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle, marking one of the only times my players ever chose a group name) and would adventure together.

Every character died at least once. A TPK was foiled once with a Wish spell, while in my most ambitious plotline I intentionally killed off every character that had ever been a member of the Band of the Grinning Gargoyle so that they could be brought back to life as prisoners in a duplicate of the Tomb of Horrors created by Acererak's spurned wife! For much of the campaign, I had time to keep up a running newsletter (The Prymptown Courier) that included write-ups of what was happening in sessions, along with interviews with NPCs and other goodies. I even found time to create an original three-level dungeon (that wrapped around one published dungeon level) that they kept coming back to, though the rest of the adventures were various published modules, heavily modified. We played through a lot of the classics like G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (with ogres instead of hill giants), G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (with yeti instead of frost giants), and Tegel Manor.

My next nine years was 2000-2009.  After South Province wrapped up in 2005 I floundered directionless and largely player-less. But I was also moving away from wanting to run D&D as-is. In 2008 I had begun working on Hideouts & Hoodlums, a retroclone that combined the game I wanted to run with golden age comic book adventures, and in 2009, right at the end of this span of time, I began my first online H&H campaign on

But, before that, I ran my most successful online campaign ever in Yahoo! Clubs, Superland, from 2001 to 2004. Superland was largely freeform, but with a thin veneer of Marvel Super Heroes layered into it to keep combat fair. I had at least 13 players over the course of Superland; some of could not keep up and dropped out quickly, while Captain Comet, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Eternity were mainstays who formed the foundation of the Crimebusters Club and shaped the course of the campaign. Though City of Greyhawk and South Province had a lot of this built-in, this campaign was more about simulating everyday life in a world of superheroes than it was about them having adventurers -- though that did not stop them from facing the occasional supervillain. The premise was that, in 1955, Disneyland opened, but was incorporated into the City of Anaheim instead of separate from it, and Walt Disney had invited the aging superheroes of the golden age (who were aging in real time) to come live in Disneyland. It was a shared universe setting with a hodgepodge of characters from various comic book publishers all interacting together.

My last set of nine years has been 2009-20018. During this time, I have only run two AD&D campaigns, a live session Garham to Greyhawk campaign (all east and south of the City of Greyhawk, but never reached it before a TPK ended the campaign) and an online Verbobonc campaign (my plan was to run them through the Living Greyhawk tournaments, but we only did the first one and then detoured into stopping the Cult of the Flaming Eye from possessing Dieg Manor from the super-module Fate of Istus, kind of bringing me full circle D&D-wise).

All of my other campaigns in this period have been H&H campaigns. Two also-rans were my Library Campaign, that saw a lot of young people try H&H and saw them choose to move from exploring hideouts in the Midwest to fighting Nazis in Occupied France, and a short-lived JSA campaign online that emulated just All-Star Comics #5, with a lot of wandering encounters added.

My three best campaigns in this period have been three Hideouts & Hoodlums campaigns. First was my Rpol campaign. Like South Province, the goal here was running through heavily modified classic D&D adventures -- Temple of the Frog, Tomb of Horrors, Escape from Astigar's Lair, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks -- but set in 1940. I believe that ran for four years and saw heroes reach 6th level, but erased my archive so I can't go back and check anymore.

I'm also proud of the campaign I'm running now. My first ambitious attempt to run a sandbox campaign setting using H&H, the Mount Prospect campaign (also known as Batman and the Golden Age Outsiders) is in its second year, has a steady group of five players, heroes as high as 6th level, and is largely based on the early unpublished D&D works of Rob Kuntz (with a little Len Lakofka's Lendore campaign thrown in).

But my greatest accomplishment during this period were my Blue Box Campaign/Sunday Nights Campaign, using H&H. For the only time ever, I had two independent groups of players who could cross over into each others campaigns, as happened twice. The Blue Box Campaign frustrated my players sometimes because of my ambition, but it was a perfect emulation of the solo and group adventures of the Justice Society of America from All-Star Comics #4-7, mixed with additional comic book adventures and classic modules like Dark Tower. Meanwhile, the Sunday Nights Campaign ran longer, saw heroes rise as high as 8th level, and had adventures like exploring an alternate Norway that had become magically merged with the Wilderlands campaign setting, and explored the Citystate of the Invincible Overlord. They returned to the Americas, where they fought Nazis in Brazil and wound up saving President Roosevelt from an ambush from a magic gate, but accidentally burned down the White House in their grand finale.

So my four landmark campaigns were:
City of Greyhawk
South Province
Blue Box/Sunday Nights

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Storm King's Thunder Retro-Conversion - pt. 2 (SPOILERS)

Elves to the Rescue!
Rond Arrowhome, Elf Swordsman: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 9”; F 3; hp 19; #At 1 longbow or 1 longsword; Dmg 1-6or 1-8. 10 Arrows +1.
7 Elven Warriors: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 9”; F 2; hp 13, 13, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6; #At 1 longbow or 1 longsword; Dmg 1-6 or 1-8.

Dripping Caves
It makes no sense that the guards at the castle know there are survivors in the Dripping Caves all this time, but don’t think to mention it until the PCs reach 3rd level. I would have one survivor escape with this news as soon as a third PC reaches 2nd level and between forays to Quasqueton.

1A. Ledges
There is a 4 in 6 chance of safely climbing to the ledges.
5 goblins: AC 7 (leather); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 7, 6, 5, 3, 1; #At 1 short bow or 1 spear; Dmg 1-6.

1B. Hot Mud Bath
1 ogre: AC 5 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 4+1; hp 19; #At 1 club; Dmg 1-10.

1C. Stalagmite Forest
1 ogre: AC 5 (leather & cover); MV 9”; HD 4+1; hp 18; #At 1 javelin or 1 club; Dmg 1-8 or 1-10.

2. Goblin Warrens
Instead of specifying “weak” goblins, noncombatants should be referred to as young goblins. Even young goblins should still be feral and dangerous, not cowering to elicit pity.

2A. Sleeping Caves
2 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 6, 3; #At 1 spear; Dmg 1-6.
12 young goblins: AC 9; MV 12”; HD 1/2; hp 2 x6, 1 x6; #At 1 bite + claw; Dmg 1.

3A. The Blob
I didn’t expect to have to Nerf any encounters in this module, but this one is just too ridiculous for levels 1-2 (or even 3!). Now it would be--
1 ochre jelly: AC 8; MV 3”; HD 5; hp 23; #At 1 blow; Dmg 2-12; SA immune to weapons and lightning.

3B. Water Supply
There is a 5 in 6 chance of identifying the mushrooms as poisonous (come on, they’re green!). The mushrooms do not do poison damage; anyone eating one saves vs. Poison at +4 or is out of action from stomach pains for 1-6 hours.

4. Bats and Prisoners
Being caught in the bat swarm does 1-2 points of damage per person.

This isn’t Planescape; there would be no tieflings in Nightstone, so Destiny Agganor is now an elf. She’s a naughty elf, which is why she worships Asmodeus. And of course she imposes this on her son -- she’s evil!

6. Underground Stream
There is a 3 in 6 chance per 30 minutes of encountering 1 goblin or 2 young goblins here (see 2A for stats).

7. Natural Chimney
There is a 3 in 6 chance for anyone not in armor heavier than leather to climb the chimney.
2 goblins (see 2A for stats).

8. Hark’s Hoard
There is a 2 in 6 chance of finding the concealed entrance, and then a 2 in 6 chance per attempt of moving the boulder (on a 6, I’d have it roll back over a foot for 1 point of damage!).
The lock on the chest should be a real lock, but one that thieves have double chance of unlocking. The chest contains: 174 cp, 110 sp, 24 gp, a matching pair of electrum candlesticks worth 50 gp (for the pair), a case of decorative thieves’ tools worth 50 gp (for the set), a wood and gold holy symbol worth 50 gp, a potion, and a spell scroll.

9. Boss Hark’s Cave
Boss Hark, Goblin Chief: AC 2 (plate & shield); MV 3”; HD 4; hp 17; #At 1 broadsword; Dmg 1-8.
3 goblins sub-leaders: AC 4 (chain & shield); MV 6”; HD 1; hp 5, 3, 2; #At 1 short sword; Dmg 1-6.
5 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 7, 5, 4, 3, 2; #At 1 mace; Dmg 1-6.
7 giant rats: AC 7; MV 12”; HD 1/2; hp 3 x2, 2 x3, 1 x2; #At 1 bite; Dmg 1-3.

Dealing with Hark
The PCs shouldn’t need to negotiate with Hark because he and his troops are pretty wimpy (even with their numbers boosted!). Again, there’s no way this mini-dungeon would level anyone up -- at best, everyone is going to get about 800 xp out of here.

So it’s back to Quasqueton. And then, after that, maybe the first two levels of The Caverns of Thracia. By then, at least three members of the party should be 5th level. In all, the campaign has taken 16 months of weekly sessions. Now, it’s finally time for Chapter 2.

Tower of Zephyros
Zephyros, Cloud Giant Sorcerer: AC 0 (+2 from Staff); MV 15”; HD 12+8; hp 58; #At 1 Staff +2; Dmg 6-36+2; SA hurl rocks for 2-24 dmg, spells; SD surprised on a 1, spells. Spells: Charm Person, Read Languages, Magic Missile, Sleep; Continual Light, ESP, Levitate, Mirror Image; Lightning Bolt, Protection from Normal Missiles, Slow; Confusion, Plant Growth; Contact Higher Plane.  Armed with a Staff of Power (13 charges).  

Then, because any experienced DM knows that single opponents -- no matter what their power level -- can get overwhelmed by sheer numbers with better dice rolls, Zephyros is going to need some back-up in case the PCs see that staff and get greedy. I would give him two non-adult cloud giants (maybe his children, or young cousins) for company.

2 young cloud giants: AC 5; MV 14”; HD 6; hp 29, 28; #At 1 morningstar; Dmg 2-16; SA hurl rocks for 1-12 dmg.

I would come up with activities for the PCs to do on the flying cloud island rather than just wait for wandering encounters. This might include:
1. The giants like to play bowling and challenge the PCs to a contest (with different sized pins, of course!).
2. Zephyros has lost something and needs the PCs to help search his island for it.
3. The young cousins have made dinner with some spoiled food today and someone gets sick from it.
4. The giants are trying to domesticate the griffins on the island and encourage the PCs to try going for a ride on one (very dangerous, with lots of potential falling damage!).

Day 3: The Howling Hatred
7 cultists: AC 2 (plate & shield); C 2; hp 10, 9, 8, 8, 7, 6, 5; #At 1 flail; Dmg 1-6; SA spells (Cause Light Wounds x2, Putrefy Food & Water x1, Detect Magic x1, Detect Good x1, Protection from Good x1, Darkness x1).
2 cult fanatics: AC 3 (Plate +1 & shield x1, plate & Shield +1 x1); MV 6” x1, 9” x1; C 5; hp 19, 18; #At 1 Serpent Staff x1, 1 Flail +1 x1; Dmg 1-6+1; Spells: (Cure Light Wounds, Protection from Good; Bless Hold Person) x1, (Cure Light Wounds, Detect Magic; Hold Person, Silence 15’ Radius) x1.
9 giant vultures: AC 7; MV 9”/18”; HD 2; hp 11, 10 x2, 9 x3, 8 x2, 7; #At 1 bite; Dmg 1-8.
1 invisible stalker: AC 3; MV 12”; HD 8; hp 37; #At 1 strike; Dmg 4-16.

In addition to the bag of 10 pinches of pixie dust, I would have the cultists show up with 1,000 gp in bribe money that the PCs might get, because they’ll need that for XP.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Storm King's Thunder Retro-Conversion - pt. 1 (SPOILERS)

Storm King’s Thunder
Retro-converted to OD&D
(Includes spoilers)

I’ll be using a combination of the original three booklets and the Greyhawk Supplement (1974-mid-1975).

The main problem with retro-converting from “5E” is that the new version has this ridiculous notion that you should level up after fighting just a few goblins and taking their paltry treasure. If awarding XP only for treasure gained -- as most interpret the OD&D rules -- then no one can level up by the point the adventure says they should be 2nd level. If awarding 100 xp per Hit Die of monster, as some interpret the OD&D rules, then a thief is halfway to 2nd level and a cleric is close to that -- and that is assuming only four characters. I’m increase the number of goblins encountered and double treasure, and it still won’t be enough to level anyone.   

I would put Nightstone on a peninsula (maybe the castle can stay on an island) with twice as many buildings. The current map looks like a tiny hamlet, and as such would not have a castle and temple with it. 

Players should not expect such a cakewalk as to encounter these goblins separately; these are starting locations for goblins and they will rush to join any nearby fight they can hear or see.

1. Drawbridge
There is a 3 in 6 chance of spotting the tracks. 
2D. East Tower
2 goblins: AC 7 (leather); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 3, 2; #At 1 morningstar; Dmg 1-8. In addition to the locket, the goblins guard a sack of 25 gp.
2E. West Tower
3 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 3, 3, 1; #At 1 spear; Dmg 1-6. In addition to the perfume, one of them has a sack of 16 gp.
3. Square
2 dire wolves: AC 7; MV 15”; HD 3+3; hp 18, 10; #At 1 bite; Dmg 1-8. 
4C. Southwell Farm
There wouldn’t actually be any farms on an island this tiny, so this is just an aviary where the village’s roosters are/were kept. 
3 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 3, 2, 1; #At 1 short sword; Dmg 1-6. The ring is actually worth 300 gp.
4E. Summerhawk Residence
The hidey-hole is found as a concealed door. The pouch also contains 2 gems worth 10 gp each.
4F. Agannor Residence
Only thieves have a chance of unlocking the front door, but any class has a 2 in 6 chance of getting through the shutters (one try per PC). There is also a locked box containing 75 gp.
4G. Nesper Farm
Blik’s pouch has 23 sp in it instead.
4H. Xelbrin Residence
There is a locked box containing 64 gp and 17 sp instead of the pouch.
Temple (this is actually a shrine, not a temple. There’s no way a community this small could support a temple)
5B. Bedroom and Steeple
4 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 5, 3, 2, 1; #At 1 spear or 1 short sword; Dmg 1-6. A locked box holds 40 more gp.
6. Graveyards
This area needs more variety of foes to fight; I’m tossing in 5 skeletons here to give the cleric a chance to turn undead. AC 7; MV 6”; HD 1/2; hp 3, 2, 2, 1, 1; #At 1 club; Dmg 1-6.
6A. Nandar Crypt and Graveyard
Kudos to the writers for putting an unbeatable monster here; that’s very old school. Of course, a restriction needs to be put on the monster so it cannot leave this area so the PCs have a chance to run away and survive. It would also make old school sense to have Nandar interred with a silver dagger, perhaps one held in a jeweled scabbard worth 600 gp.
7B. Hayloft
2 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 2, 1; #At 1 pitchfork; Dmg 1-6.
8. Nightstone Inn
8A. Dining Room
There is a 4 in 6 chance of noticing the goblin is freshly killed.
8B. Kitchen and Pantry
2 goblins: AC 6 (leather & shield); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 5, 1; #At 1 short sword; Dmg 1-6. A small chest holds an additional 46 gp.
8F. Kella’s Bedroom
Kella Darkhope is a robber: AC 7 (leather); MV 12”; T 3; hp 9; #At 1 short sword or 1 light crossbow bolt; Dmg 1-6. SA backstab for x2 damage. She doesn’t have a flying snake on her arm; she has a poisonous snake (bite - save vs. poison or unable to do anything for 1-6 days) in a chest in her room, guarding 16 gp.
10. Windmill
4 goblins: AC 7 (leather); MV 9”; HD 1-1; hp 5, 5, 4, 3; #At 1 light crossbow or 1 broadsword; Dmg 1-6 or 1-8. They also have 16 sp between them.
11. Bridge
Jumping from one part of the bridge to the other has a 4 in 6 chance of success. Damage for missing is 1-6 points.
14. Nandar Keep
To keep the Keep from being overrun easily, it needs more surviving guards.
14A. Great Hall
8 veterans: AC 3 or 2 (plate, & shieldx4); MV 6”; F 1; hp 8, 6, 6, 4, 4, 3, 3, 3; #At 1 halberd or 1 long sword; Dmg 1-10 or 1-8.
The ring is worth 1,500 gp.  
14D. Upstairs Hall
I’m adding a warrior here: AC 2 (plate & shield); MV 6”; F 2; hp 10; #At 1 bastard sword; Dmg 1-8.
14E. Master Bedroom
The flying sword is a nonmagical trap that springs once. The chest contains an additional 1,175 gp, and the necklaces are worth 400 gp each.

Note: Lawful PCs should not get any XP for looting anywhere in town. If they did not loot, the guards offer them the 1,175 gp as a reward for slaying/capturing/running off all the goblins.

After Nightstone
As I said, there’s no chance of anyone leveling in this scenario -- but it does put them in a better position to adventure in a real dungeon, like, oh, say Quasqueton. They can use Nightstone as a base of operations to go In Search of the Unknown from. This works out even better for the “Special Events in Nightstone” since, as written, there was no reason for the PCs to stick around after killing off the handful of goblins originally here.   

Seven Snakes (encountered after someone hits 2nd level, NOT before their first “long rest.”
Xolkin Alassandar, swashbuckler: AC 1 (plate & Shield +1); F 5; hp 21; #At 1 Longsword +1; Dmg 1-8. SA Ring of Protection +1 and Potion of Invulnerability. His gold ring is worth 500 gp.
6 bandits: AC 4 (chain & shield); F 1; hp 8, 8, 4, 3, 2, 1; #At 1 short bow or 1 long sword; Dmg 1-6 or 1-8.  

After two of the PCs have leveled up:   

Ear Seekers
Gurrash, Orc War Chief: AC 1 (plate & Shield+1); HD 5; hp 30; #At 1 Morningstar +1; Dmg 2-9.
Norgra, Orc Eye of Gruumsh: AC 2 (plate & shield); Cl 2; hp 8; #At 1 morningstar; Dmg 1-8. SA spell - Cure Light Wounds.
20 orcs: AC 4 (chain & shield); HD 1; hp 8, 7 x5, 6 x2, 4 x2, 3 x5, 2, 1 x4; #At 1 heavy crossbow or 1 broadsword x6, 1 battle axe x7, 1 spear x6; Dmg 1-6 or 1-8 x6, 1-8 x7, 1-6 x7. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

GaryConX Report - part 2

I was getting nervous at the pub about if I would make it back in time for my 2 pm game. I was scheduled to run Hideouts & Hoodlums: The Everburning Tower. Now, just two years earlier, I had a full table of eight for H&H and had to turn one person away -- but this year, no one had signed up for my game. I hoped that someone might come by and stop out of curiosity, but no. Nor did friends who knew I was there with no players come and offer to play. So this disappointment, more than anything else, kept this from being the best GaryCon yet.

Nearby, Michael Shorten was running A Ford over Troubled Waters (har har) with a very impressive miniatures set-up, and my friend Dave Ferguson was playing in his game, so I did stick around and watched some of that. With all that extra time, I made my first circle around the exhibit hall finally. I spent way too much, and that was just keeping to purchases of $10 or less. When I was running low on cash, some people will very generous with deals.

At 6 pm, I played in Michael Mornard’s Yet Still More Magic-Users with Knives along with my friend Dave. To my surprise, we were not obligated to play magic-users and I quickly rolled up a dwarven fighter -- one of the great things about OD&D is that my character was done in just a few minutes. I intentionally kept him defense-oriented (often hanging back with a bow) so they would not get too dependent on me in the front ranks, as I had already warned Michael I had to leave at 10 to drive home and could not stay until midnight.

From my vantage point of hanging out at the back, I was able to observe the shortcomings of placing importance on tactical placement in tight hallway fighting with such a large group. Now, I was well-versed enough in Old School to know that Michael’s pie in the face gag was par for the course for the early 1970s campaigns and I appreciated that he made no changes to his early dungeon to update it with the times. However, I felt some of the players did not understand this was meant for a chuckle and then we move on, but instead took it to mean they were supposed to act silly all the time. Luckily they had Dave, who did an outstanding job as party caller of keeping them organized and effective in battle. At 10, before I left, I had a brief conversation with Michael about the challenge of keeping a large party equally engaged in the narrative, which I hope we can continue soon on the OD&D Discussion message board.


On Saturday I still managed to get there well before 10. I think this was when I got a rare chance to talk to Dave Kenzer, which went great. My difficulty with remembering people was no more evident than Saturday morning when I approached Seth Warfield and said, “I remember playing something with you,” and he replied with, “Scott, I’ve DMed for you three times!”

(I’m still not sure about the three times, but sure enough, I went home that night and found on my blog that Seth had DMed “Magick Magick Magick” for me back in 2015.)

At 10 am, I was playing Dungeon again with David and Rose Megarry. It’s been a few years since I last played with them and I was surprised by how much David had expanded his introduction before the game to include a lot of personal information about his life. It was almost like watching a one-man show where the actor opens up about his life to the audience, and the acting is the leaving himself exposed and vulnerable and, in the end, it was almost moving. But as interesting as all that was, it was only the prelude to playing one of the best board games ever made.

That said -- I lost. We did not have time to finish our game, but tallied our gold and the highest percentage of goal completion won. I had disastrous luck with the superhero, heading down to the fourth level and encountering mostly slimes and puddings that were virtually immune to my attacks. About halfway through, my luck turned around after reaching the third level and I slowly recovered to the point where I was roughly tied for second place with a player who missed five whole turns of the game because of a trap. My luck was nowhere near as bad as the player to my right, who went too deep with a hero and got beat down by a vampire. The vampire took and kept his magic sword and then (rather humorously, actually) the poor guy lost almost every dice off for the rest of the game by just one point (Dungeon players would know he would have won those battles had he tied). Meanwhile, the magic-user (who won) had a nearly unbroken run of lucky dice rolls. He was so confident that most of the time he waded into battles without relying on spells, and it still worked for him.

Afterwards, at noon, I sat in on Grodog’s (Allan Grohe’s) Castle Greyhawk and was lucky enough to land a seat when some players didn’t show. We were a group of 11 and, after my conversation with Mornard, I was really intrigued to see how Allan was going to handle such a large group. His approach was to keep the game less narrative-driven and we played more out-of-character. For the first three hours, this ran very smoothly. When Allan got distracted by a side issue (two characters were permanently blinded by a monster and we needed a way to restore them) his attention to detail started to falter, which was really unfortunate when we got to some elaborate set pieces that Allan had trouble describing. But, despite these issues, it was a well put-together dungeon level and very Gygaxian in feel.

I ate dinner alone in the room after the game and, having nothing on my agenda, decided to check out the Kenzer table again. There I found long-time Hideouts & Hoodlums player Timothy Lemaster and his wife Teri sitting with Stevil, about to play a Hackmaster demo. Tim and Teri wanted to talk business with me, but wanted to play the demo first, so I joined in the demo myself. We played through a combat with 10th level characters vs. zombies, which was still somewhat challenging because level advancement is so gradual in the current edition of Hackmaster. Stevil was very patient with me as I picked and prodded at the company’s game design decisions, but I left with a much better understanding of how the new Hackmaster is different from old Hackmaster than I did after my last demo.

Timothy and Teri talked to me about the game store they want to open near Miami and I sold them a copy of Hideouts & Hoodlums 2nd Edition Basic! 

It was still early, so I went to go visit the room where Joe Bloch was running his version of Castle Greyhawk, Castle of the Mad Archmage. Turned out, he only had four players and they were eager to hand their magic-user off to me so one player did not have to double-up. They were in the middle of a troll fight which ran longer than it should have because I rolled a near-record low for lightning bolt damage. I think my spells and advice were handy for the team, up to and including, “Don’t go in there, it’s an airlock!” However…curiosity got the better of us and we all wound up going through the airlocks, without even looking behind us to see if they could be opened in the opposite direction. Oops. We were completely responsible for that TPK.


This was the day Megan came along. It was harder getting two people out of the house than one so we did not arrive until close to 10 am. Today, we had nothing on our agenda until 2 pm, when I was running Gamma World.

First thing, Megan got the Thorgi T-shirt she had wanted ever since I snapped a picture of it on Thursday. Then we moved through the artist alley and I got in one more comic book chat with Terry Pavlet. We went through the exhibit hall and spent some more money. I left with two Rob Kuntz products, which was very exciting.

I was hoping to go back and try to hang out with the Kenzer guys before they left, but Megan was feeling a little anxiety and we had to sit out in the less crowded hall while we ate “dungeon wraps.” Then we went down to the mostly empty open gaming room and picked out two short two-player games to try. One was a “reverse Jenga” game called Rhino Hero that was simple and pretty fun. The other was Truck Off, a Kickstarter game so new that the box still had its new smell (probably donated that same weekend). It took us a while to figure out Truck Off. Megan was starting to like it, but I didn’t care for it.
And then it was time for Gamma World: the Green Slime. The con was looking pretty empty when we came back upstairs, but there was a table of five waiting for me (six had signed up). It was apparently one whole gaming group from California that signed up en masse for my game. It was interesting playing with a group that knew each other because they had great camaraderie and were very funny; I had not laughed so hard for some time as I did at some of the jokes we were cracking during Gamma World. One of the nicer compliments I got all weekend was from one of them, who said he had played Gamma World before, but didn’t understand how to play it until I explained it.

Oh, and they finished the scenario and retrieved the meteor with only one of them dying in the green slime.. though to finish in two hours, they did bypass the village entirely and I had to ignore the very high chance of reinforcements coming during the final battle with the space aliens.

And then it was all over. Megan and I went back to the car and I, regretfully, ended my participation in GaryCon X.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

GaryCon X Report - part 1

GaryCon X has come and gone already! While the details are still fresh in my mind, I’m going to record my recollections of this, my second favorite GaryCon ever after last year’s. This was, I believe, my sixth GaryCon, my third (out of three) at the Geneva Grand Resort, and possibly the first time I’ve ever managed to attend all four days.


I made excellent time reaching Lake Geneva by car, arriving at 9:08 -- my earliest arrival time in years. And that was a good thing too because I had a long walk ahead of me. GaryCon had grown since last year, expanding all the way from the north end to the south end of the resort. This meant a long, meandering wander through many hallways and stairs before reaching The Forum at the south end. Later, I heard that people who could take the cold made better time walking outside. And there was shuttle service for those who could wait until half-hour intervals to get it.

The Forum reminded me of GenCon from the old Milwaukee days -- huge rooms broken down by hanging curtains into manageable sections. It was something I had been advocating for after the final year of GaryCon at The Lodge to take care of the noise problem there. It …mostly worked here, depending on how popular the time slot was.

I had three hours until I was scheduled to run Swords & Wizardry: Castle Baldemar’s Dungeon. I did wander and watched some other people playing. I saw some people I knew -- had an early encounter with Carlos Lising just passing by -- and was recognized by people I did not immediately recognize back. But mainly I just sat down and prepared, making sure I had reviewed the adventure, all the magic item descriptions, and anything else I could think of I would need to recall quickly.

I had eight people signed up for Castle Baldemar’s Dungeon. Of them, I had six show, plus one guest join in to make seven. I was quite satisfied with that, particularly in having one of them a repeat attendee from last year (though that was partly because R.J. is a huge S&W fan).

The game itself went great. Everyone seemed invested in the scenario. They delighted in every difficult combat I threw at them, especially the ones they were meant to run from. They were the only players I have ever run this for who stayed, fought the spectres, and won, though were they ever surprised when they found no way to get all their lost energy levels back after the combat! Because of their battle lust, they did have to take a long rest to get spells and hit points back before they could continue.

There is a lot of puzzle-building built into the scenario, but they avoided most of it by just bashing their way through every obstacle they encountered. They explored 14 out of 28 rooms in 3 1/2 hours and then I asked them, “Do you want to keep playing this adventure as-is, or cut straight to the last room now?” They picked the last room. And…despite the fact that half the party died in the final battle, the survivors did manage to retrieve the magic staff and escape with it -- and I think everyone was happy with that.

I was happy, but a little tired after running my first game of the con, but I had to get moving because text messages had informed me that my webcomic partner Mike Bridges and his best friend Jayson had arrived, and were already hanging out with master cartographer Anna Meyer and her friend. I found them all the way on the far end of the resort, sitting and talking. I made the mistake of finding that my phone was seriously low on charge from too many pictures and texts and plugged it in to recharge, then got left behind while the others wandered off and I was left guarding my phone. I never saw Anna again, though she insists she was there all four days.

I spent some time in the artist alley (an overflow area for people who didn’t fit in the exhibit hall anymore) talking to Terry Pavlet and Darlene. I wandered the Legends of Wargaming room and marveled over the new exhibit. Instead of rare items from published game history, this display was more focused on the early wargamers, contained a huge collection of photographs of wargamers going back to the late ‘60s, and its most remarkable piece was a homemade computer made for calculating wargame results, with dials for virtually every conceivable detail. I was assured by Kevin Maguire that the computer probably still worked.

I was particularly hanging around the Legends of Wargaming room because I was signed up to play Legends of Wargaming: They Met at Quatre Bras at 6 pm. Using the Fire and Charge wargaming rules from 1964 (which, I believe, were the oldest wargame being run at the convention), I was looking forward to this window into the pre-Chainmail days of our shared hobby. Particularly after all the prep work I had put into my S&W game, it was a little disconcerting to learn that our referee, Steve Fratt, had not played Fire and Charge in 40-odd years and was relearning it as we went along. I have noticed that, unlike roleplaying referees who need to stay involved in the whole scenario, wargame referees seem to feel they’ve done their job if the players can play the game without them, and then sit back and chat with other people about other things. I find this disconcerting too.

I don’t know enough about wargames to really evaluate the rules. I do know that, for a wargame, it was relatively rules-lite. This left a lot of subjective room for the referee to make calls, many of which were routinely questioned by a player on the opposing side of the table. Then Steve would adopt his “teacher talking to a problem student” tone and instruct him on how he was wrong. I got the tone once, but I needed it because I was not getting that we were attacking per company instead of per unit.

I am not a wargamer, but every year I convince myself I need to play one wargame to experience the roots of my hobby. I’m no good at wargames and found myself empathizing too much with the fictional soldiers I was throwing to their deaths. By 9 pm, I was emotionally checked out of playing and just going through the motions to avoid the empathic backlash. Interestingly, I noticed my hottly antagonistic antagonist had also checked out emotionally, but the two quiet players beside us were happily completing the scenario as best they could, though the whole thing ended with the murky sort of tie that makes you question what good is war.


I drove back from the Chicago suburbs again, and again made it shortly after 9. I had lots of time before the Working with Gary Gygax, 1998-2008 seminar began, which was a good thing because it was in the Grand Suite. The Grand Suite’s location was not clear from the map, was not labeled as “Grand Suite” outside the room, was impossible to find without directions, and difficult even with them. Next year, a simple sheet of paper taped to the wall that says “Grand Suite” on it would be grand.

Our three panel members arrived at different times as they found the place, but they gave an excellent review of Gary’s extraordinary output in his last decade, full of interesting anecdotes about how disinterested Gary was in his old Castle Greyhawk, how much he loved his Lejendary Adventures game, and how much he wanted to move past medieval fantasy into exploring “Renaissance”-era fantasy. I was glad to be there to point out that it was actually Tudor period that Gary was moving into in his later years (as he told the Greytalk mailing list around the beginning of this final decade; I suspect our very smart panelists actually knew this, but assumed their audience didn’t know the difference in the two historical periods). 

I then returned to the distant Forum to find where Carlos Lising was running Die, Markessa, Die! I had planned to only observe the end of the game, but actually was able to jump in when one player had to leave before the end and I took over his ranger character. My late arrival was not enough to keep Markessa (Carlos’ favorite character from the classic AD&D Slave Lords modules) from escaping from us. At least I got to search for a secret door.

After the game, Mike, Jayson, and I were going to peruse the exhibit hall (which I still had not seen) and then eat lunch somewhere, but we got invited by Carlos into his group of friends -- now numbering ten people -- who all went to a pub together. My burger was great. Pickle fries …not so good. As spread out as we were, it was impossible to engage everyone in the same conversation, though Carlos made a game try of it. I do wonder what the older people at the tables behind Carlos thought of his talk about Markessa murdering everyone’s families, though.