My Worst Game of Dungeons and Dragons

It was 1983 and Gencon XVI was being held at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  As a teenager I had read about it in my monthly issue of The Dragon magazine which I diligently picked up at a local hobby store.  I wanted to go to Gencon as much as some kids wanted to go to Disneyland but unfortunately, I was still without a driver’s license.  Even if I had a driver’s license, the concept of me taking the family car on a 6 hour drive and a multiple day trip was not even close to the realm of reality.  Gencon might as well have been in Mongolia.

Yet, as they do, magical things occur.  Another gift came my way.  (The first gift was here.)  Details are foggy but a very close friend in the family spoke to my parents about a trip they were taking.  They had heard me talking about this special place called “GenCon” and knew about my love of this weird game I had been playing.  It so happened they were going to be heading up to Milwaukee for the same weekend as the convention and asked my parents if I could go along with them?  They would drop me off every morning at the convention, pick me up in the early evening and bring me back home when they came back from their trip.

To my stunned and stammering disbelief, my parents said, “Ok.”

As long as I took care of all of the logistics my parents were fine with me going.  They agreed to help pay my way but they wanted me to pitch in as well.  I had to check in every night by phone.  Oh, wait, let’s be clear here – a pay phone.  Remember those?  There was no such thing as the  internet then (hence the payphone) so I had to use stamps and the U.S. Mail to happily send in my entrance form and my fee.    I happily agreed and started the process.  One of the first things I did when I was picking out my gaming schedule was to enter into the D&D Open Championship that TSR would be running.

There was an agonizing long time to get my badge and my entrance packet back.  August took forever to arrive.  Patience, though,  is still a virtue and in no time I was travelling up to Kenosha in the back seat of a car with a suitcase of clothes and a backpack of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons books and dice.  After an incredibly long drive and a quick check of the surroundings by my family’s friend, I found myself in Geek Nirvana.

It’s a powerful thing to find a place where, no matter how much you were ostracized where you lived, you arrive and immediately feel at home, accepted and welcome.  No matter where I went there was evidence I had found a place that accepted this wacky, geeky part of me.  Like so many others who arrive at Gencon’s doors, after living off of poorly stocked hobby store shelves  in my hometown, my first experience seeing the dealer floor was mind blowing.

The D&D Open Championship was a series of games, each about 4 hours in length, that played itself out over the course of the convention.  Players were placed in a 9-10 player group that played together to see how far they could get and stay alive through a series of adventures.  Through the culmination of different points acquired through the adventures, a final winning group would be chosen after the entire series.   My first game started in the early afternoon of my first day.

I was paired up with the other players, two of which were a little older than me but also “newbies” to GenCon.  My first character class love was Ranger and so I volunteered to play that character in the tournament.  We were all called to a table, pulled out our dice, settled in, and prepared for the adventure.  Things went fine at first.  I honestly cannot remember the quest or what we were doing.  However, I can remember how it all ended for me.

As the Ranger, I was in the lead/scout position with my long bow out as we moved along the edge of, I think,  a swamp.  The DM described the scene as we moved along and things were going well.

The dungeon master’s voice called out, “Suddenly, a wretched mass of clothing and rotted flesh staggers out of the reeds!  It lunges out and onto the path.  It is something undead and it’s moving fast towards the Ranger!”

Yikes!  My first combat at Gencon!  I was ready.  I was excited!  I never got to use the bow because the DM ruled it a surprise round.  The undead creature ran right towards me, hitting me in the first die roll.  I took solid damage.  Our cleric in the group tried to Turn Undead but, “The creature is too powerful” said the DM.

Combat went on for only one or two more rounds.  My group could do nothing to help me.  The monster took me down, slaughtering me.

My character was dead.

It then shambled back into the swamp and disappeared into the water as my companions at least tried to avenge me.

I sat in silence, so confused, so upset.  “What was that?  I never had a chance!”

The  DM replied, “You see, the creature was a revenant and it was after you.”

“A revenant?  Why was it after me?”

“It was a revenant of a man you secretly murdered in cold blood.  It’s an undead creature fueled by revenge.  It’s sole motive was to finally track you down and kill you.” The DM showed me the entry for the creature in the book he had, The Fiend Folio.  I had the book at home and when I saw the picture I remembered it.

But it only made me more confused.  I looked down at my character sheet, looked at the background. There was no mention of being a murderer.   Nothing.  Just a normal “Rangerey” background.   I clearly remember what my teenager mouth said next,

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sorry.  That is what is in the module. You’re character is dead,” and he gave a single dismissive motion that told me I was done at the table and I should leave.

Oh, I left the table alright but I was far from done.  Even in my youthful, novice stage of RPG gaming, I knew a serious problem when it ran up to me and killed me.

I stormed over to the administration table for the tournament and explained what had happened

Even before I was done telling my story, the official  was nodding his head in agreement.  When I was finished he said (and, no, this is not exact but it’s how I remember it.) “I know.  It sucks.  The revenant is there to kill the Ranger because the Ranger is able to help the party get through a later challenge too easily.  It’s possible to save the Ranger but near impossible.  Sorry.”

I seriously had to have him repeat it to me twice.

This was the superior game design I had spent months looking forward toward,  placing all my hopes and roleplaying dream on, saving for and riding 6 hours to get to?  This? That was the answer?  I came all of this way for this?  I could have stayed at home and had a better game of Monopoly.

Now, with thirty years of experience and age under my belt, I have a feeling that there are only a few options possible about this entire situation.  The first one is simple and something my ego likes to hear.  The second, well,  is just the opposite and NOT something my ego wants to here.  I don’t like but I have to admit it as a possibility.

  1. They really designed something that stupid.
  2. I was a younger, annoying player and they had an option built in to weed such scallywags out.

Let’s look at #2 first.  I don’t remember being an annoying chatterbox kid around the table.  But, and this is important, who does?  My memory is that I was excited but pretty well behaved. I was definitely new to the experience but I have no memories of interrupting someone or trying to hog every scene.  In my adult gaming past I have had to run numerous games with that overly excited kid who is coming close to ruining the game for everyone else at the table.  (This is why I have to accept it’s a possibility.)  However, as a gamemaster, I feel it’s an important part of the skill set to use it as a chance for a teaching opportunity. This extends to other players around the table as well.  As a player it’s a perfect time to take a misbehaving player under their wing for a bit.

Bottom line is, I don’t think I was that kid but I don’t know and may never know for sure.  If I was that kid was it right of them to do what they did?  I suppose you could chalk it up to game “style?”

There was no internet or forum boards back then to go complaining on.   I was just a teenage kid who had been crushed over some really pathetic module design and sent packing back into the crowded hallway.  I will never know.  If someone is reading this and remembers this particular Gencon, this 1983 Championship and the damn revenant by the swamp with it’s hatred for a murderous ranger (that didn’t know he had murdered anyone) then, please, help a fellow gaming brother out!

What I do know is that it was the worse game of Dungeons and Dragons in my life.

Had I not been at GenCon and gone on to have an amazing series of days playing other games, sitting in pick-up games, and going on to be in the group to score 2nd place in the Top Secret RPG tournament, it might have turned me off forever.

Right then, in the moment when I was turned away with no options, I felt cheated and picked on.  All my happy feelings of being there were turned on their ear and all the gamer geek baggage I thought I had left at the door simply fell back on me.

And this is one of the two lessons I want to pass on – Be mindful of how you are running your game and, most importantly, the contract of trust your players are putting on the table with you no matter who is playing.  With that contract comes the prospect of a large amount of fun and even larger amount of trust going both ways.  Be mindful that you do not break that contract.

The other lessson?

If you have a bad game, and you will, don’t let it spin you down.  There are always more games.  Dust yourself off, grab your dice bag and find another game where everyone involved understands the contract in place.  Those games are out there and probably closer than you realize.

Go find them.

 

 

 

The Rare Treasure of RPGs – The Horror Game

I think the hardest role playing game to run is a scary one.  It’s Halloween and it has me thinking all sorts of dark and spooky thoughts which have evolved into pondering about role playing games and how difficult it can be to evoke and maintain a proper feeling of fear at the game table.  So many other genres fit well into the role playing mold but what is it about horror that eludes us?  We will be excited and thrilled and happy after a game session of thrilling heroics but how often after a game session are you a bit unsettled as you head home?

My first horror game was Pacesetter’s Chill.  I have fond memories of that game but around the table it turned into a just another group of adventures going to kill a monster.   I’m sure a large part of it was due to my, and my group’s, inexperience at storytelling at the time.  The next step was Call of Cthulhu and though I did not own the game, I played in a small campaign run by a friend.  It was good but I never felt scared or unnerved after a game.   It was not until many years had passed that a friend ran a one shot Call of Cthulhu game that reset the bar for me.  I think it was his emphasis on setting the scene.  He had envisioned some truly startling scenes to unfold and he happily brought them out, regaling us with vivid, lurid descriptions.  One by one our characters folded into insanity or fruitless attempts at defending ourselves against Lovecraftian horrors.  It did not end well and while walking out to my car that evening I noticed that I was on edge and a bit spooked.

It was delicious.

Unfortunately, as a player, this was a singular occurrence for me.   Most of the other horror games I’ve been a part of have all, eventually, turned into the RPG version of the angry mob with pitchforks.  The desperate players confront the Evil Bad Thing and fight it off with whatever weapons are available.  Though it may look different depending on the genre it really is no different than any other big boss battle.

What makes a good horror RPG session different?

Some key points I feel are important:

  • Everyone should agree to the spirit of the game.

I think it stems back to my previous post about the contracts around the table.  Everyone needs to be on board regarding what KIND of game they are getting ready to play.  Everyone playing should understand death and insanity will come more easily, that control and power they take for granted in other games will not be present.  Much like walking into a haunted house, you have to be willing to give up control and allow yourself to be scared.  Most importantly, everyone needs to understand that reaching a solid level of scary is difficult to do around a RPG table.  The odds of success will increase with everyone’s involvement.

  • Limit the Distractions

Put away the cellphones and the off-topic banter about the latest Netflix series.  Keep the out of character wisecracks to a minimum.  Focus on the game and the story that is coming out of it.

A GM might want to invent a game mechanic that penalizes anyone who breaks the rule.  Even better, the other players should be the ones who assign the penalties which the GM enforces.  A player says something to break the spooky mood?  The GM can assign a bit more “nasty” to the game.  Or, perhaps, the player’s character receives a doom point which takes away one success at the GM’s discretion?  The best version of this is something that builds up slowly over the game and gets used near the climax of the story.

  • Embrace Death and Misfortune

As a player in a horror game it’s going to be better if you realize that your character will most likely die a gruesome death.  If you embrace this aspect you can actually help the GM and the other players of the game build up the mounting apprehension of the game if the time comes.  Go out with screaming style and it will notch up the atmosphere around the table.

GM hint – Don’t hesitate to take a character out at any time. Be merciless.  However, remember that the players have come here to play the game, not sit around eating snacks after a gory death scene while the rest of the table plays on.  Have back-up characters or things for the players to do after their first character meets an untimely end.  Maybe running other NPC’s?  Monsters?  Don’t let a player who has given their all to increase the drama be out of the game for the rest of the night.

Also, remember as a GM, there are worse fates than dying!

  • Hit the Senses

Enough emphasis cannot be placed on this one.  Though it’s always important with role playing games it is doubly so with a good horror game.  You need to lay on the descriptions.  Not only tell your players what the creepy, abandoned sanitarium looks like but tell them what it smells like, what it feels like when they touch a wall or a door.  What is the lighting like?

Reverse it on them as well.  When they encounter some sort of viscous,  mucus-like fluid they are expecting to hear what it feels like.  Hit them with what it sounds like, what it smells like.  Why go for all this florid descriptions?  It’s because receiving sensory input can steer emotional reactions within the brain.  Try this out with a fun experiment.  Think of it as a writing exercise.  What does fear smell like to you?  What does dread taste like?

What did you come up with?  Take those and use them in your game next time and see what kind of reaction you get.    Pull from your real experiences and things that scare you.  There is a good chance that if it unsettles you then it will definitely get to your players as well.

Pull no punches.

Happy Halloween!

——–

References:

The Science of Fright: Why We Love to Be Scared

Emotions and Our Senses

 

 

 

 

The Contracts on the Table

Several years ago I was running a fantasy role-playing game and the group of four to five players were working well together.  Things were getting tense during a nasty combat that was going poorly for the players.  Finally, one of them saw an opening and described a combat maneuver which was perfect for his character.  In addition, it was a perfect chance to move that character’s narrative along because of the way he chose to reveal the character’s training through colorful and detailed combat moves.  It was really great and after a wonderful narrative of exactly what he was doing to the bad guy of the encounter, the other characters cheered and applauded.

The player happily rolled his attack with bonuses.  The dice clattered, bounced and came to rest.

He missed his attack roll by one point.

I, as the game master, am embarrassed to say I chose to stick to the die roll and to the game system and declared the action had failed.  The deflation of excitement around the table was felt by everyone in the room, including myself.  The flow of a fun, dramatic game was lost in the snap of a faulty decision.

And what was the faulty decision?

I ignored the invisible contracts on the table.

When we sit down at a gaming table to play a role-playing game there are a lot of expectations.  We expect to roll dice.  We expect to be entertained.  We expect a possible combat and having to make decisions with the abilities we have on our character sheet.  We expect to see the story progress in some way.  Many of us come to the table with these expectations of what we want but don’t stop to think about the other expectations in the room held by the other players.  Those expectations are part of this contract.

The key element to these contracts is Trust.

What is a contract of trust?  In a healthy role playing game it’s the unspoken contract that I will be able to trust the game master (GM) with my character’s story, that I will be able to emote and play through my character’s narrative.  In addition, there is another contract on the table which says I will abide by the other player’s, and by default, their character’s contracts as well.  Every player is trusting me to take care of their character as well as I want them to take care of mine.

On the game master (GM) level, I am being trusted not only with the player’s character content but that my work on the current adventure will not undermine any of the character’s narrative.  Instead, it will support it in time.  This could mean the character goes through a rough time but it also means that, in trust, I as the GM will offer clues, hints, etc. to the player so the character will be able to come out the other side and grow from the experience.  The hero may get captured, beaten up and tortured but an opportunity will arise for she or he to escape and save the day.

In return, I’m trusting the players to move an adventure along, to not run roughshod over my game world and to engage and play with the story hooks and landscapes introduced.  I’m trusting them to help me have a good time as well.

There is a sub-clause in those contracts to not waste anyone’s time.  As you get older, time is more precious.  When I was younger, I remember hours, whole evenings, whole days being lost to running or playing in a game.  I imagine it’s the same for most anyone reading this.  As we get older as players, we are lucky to get 4 to 6 hours in for a game that occurs once a week, once a month, every three months?  I find it’s much more fun spending that time being aware of these contracts and building an entertaining story together.

When a game begins, especially with new players to the hobby, these contracts are unseen but often flying around willy-nilly and never getting signed or perhaps signed by a few players but not the entire group.  Occasionally, no one even knows they are there.  Though this is typically in place with young and or new players, I’ve seen veteran players completely disregarding the contracts of other players as well as the GM and focusing only on what they wish to accomplish.   We’ve all seen players like this and, I hope, have learned not to emulate them.

The best games I have been honored to play in are very cognizant of these invisible contracts.  There is a flow not only in-between the players but also with the players and the GM.  Players look out for other players, sometimes at the expense of their own characters.  Players remember that they have a contract with the GM and work to support the plotlines, NPCs and encounters she or he have worked hard to design and bring to life.

If the contracts of trust are being observed then a magical, improvisational  alchemy comes into play.  One player, Player A, might take the spotlight for a period of time or for an entire adventure knowing at any time another character will be coming forward to replace them.  A good flow and recognition of this contract would be for Player A to make sure the spotlight moves over to Player B or Player C or even the entire group as quickly and as naturally as possible.  This could be through the actions of Player A’s character or a simple conversation with the other players and the GM, “I see this next part being about Player B.  I’ve hogged enough of the spotlight, let’s move it.”

In my experience these contracts are so important and powerful there are occasional moments when they should be recognized over the game rules.  For example, the story which began this article.  The easy way out from that example would be to blame the game system.  The system wasn’t flexible enough.  The rules didn’t give me an out, a failure on the dice is a failure.  However, that’s really just shifting blame from the real issue and the contract.  As game master, I can manipulate the rules at any point in time.  I could have easily ignored the roll and declared the action a success and in the case above, wish I had done so.  There were a host of other options but, instead, I opted to not pay attention to the contract of trust regarding the character and it’s narrative.  How much better would the scene had been had I respected that contract, had I reinforced that trust instead of kicking it out from underneath the player?  Thankfully, I’m still good friends with the player after that decision.

Though all this talk of invisible contracts may sound rather vague and a little too ethereal, you can get to this mindset easily.  Look around the table at the start of the game and realize, “Everyone here is trusting me with parts of themselves, with their personal creations.”  Think about that for a minute and then just internally sign those contracts.  Try to be present through the whole game of the levels of trust happening around the table as you go through the story of the session.

As a player, look for ways to boost another player and their character’s story.  Want the equivalent of a stage-dive trust fall?  Do something ridiculous to your character and look for other players to catch you.  Afterwards, turn around and catch other player’s characters when they jump off the stage next.   Look past your GM’s dungeon and try to get a feeling of what story they are trying to tell.   Look for the love and care put into the adventure and the setting and use your character to let the GM know you appreciate the story.

As a GM, put your creations, plot lines and monsters to the side and try to figure out how you can support your player’s and their ideas.  If it goes with the character’s story, let them kill that undead lich king you spent hours honing and for which you have 10 pages of back story written. Just make it a good scene and then go back and harvest another villain from those 10 pages later.  Don’t worry about fleshing out every detail of that three story tavern and inn you’ve fallen in love with and instead build  an adventure around part of a player character’s backstory.  Then, throw your tavern into that backstory.  If the characters begin moving in a different direction then what you had planned, keep that trust up and happily let them go in the new direction.  Don’t railroad them back to what you think is right.  Let them know they can trust you with aspects of their character.

Look around and find those contracts.  Sign them with a flourish and support each other around the table.

I think you will notice a difference in the feel of the game if you do.

How It Started

The late 70’s were big for me. I had my brain explode twice before 1980.  I had grown up with Star Trek episodes, Godzilla movies, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Daniel Boone and a little known science fiction show called Space 1999. During the summer of 1977 I had my eleven year old brain blown by watching Star Wars on the big screen and spent most every weekend afterwards figuring out ways to see it again and again and again and again.

At the end of the 1979 I went to visit a friend I had not seen in a while.  When we lived next to each other we had spent idyllic summer days in the yard behind his house chasing frogs and damning up the nearby creek. We played war with little green plastic men. We played cowboys and indians. We played daring knights and fought off monsters.  My parents had moved from the city and now lived two hours away in a much smaller town.  I’d not seen him for a long time and was excited to hang out with him again.

It was a Christmas-time visit during the holiday break.  The weather was cold and somewhat nasty so we played inside and caught up with each other.  For Christmas, his parents had given him some sort of weird new game he was excited about but which I had never seen. The box for the game was very colorful and featured a wizard and a knight confronting a dragon sitting on a mound of gold. It was called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Sitting on the floor together, my friend tried to explain the game to me and wanted to know if I wanted to make a “Character.”  He showed me a handful of very oddly shaped plastic dice.

“It’ll make more sense if we just play,” he said.

I didn’t understand but I agreed. He took me through the steps to make a wizard and we began to play. I entered into a creepy old dungeon and fought two rats and, later, some goblins. I fired off a magic missile for the first time. I found a treasure chest with some coins and a magic wand. Once I realized it was a game of make-believe I got excited.

My brain exploded for the second time.

Then my parents were coming to get me and it was time to go. He hurried me out of the dungeon, wrapping up my first adventure. I asked him where he found the game as I rushed to get my coat and shoes on. I needed to find a copy!  I needed to know more, to play more!  What about my wizard? What would happen next?

“I’ll use him as a character in the game I play with my older brother. When you come back you can play him again.”

My parents were pulling into the driveway.

“Where can I find this game? Where did you get it?”

“I don’t know where my parents got it. I really wanted it and told everyone about it.”

“But, where did they FIND IT?”

My parents were coming to the door. There were greetings and hellos. I would have to leave very soon.

“I don’t know but…” and my friend suddenly ran back into his room. He came back carrying a Dungeons and Dragons box set still in its shrink wrap . “Look, I asked for this so much I actually got two copies. We were going to take this one back but here… I want you to have it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Really? Are you sure?”

My parents were calling me and it was time to go. It was the holidays. Family to visit. Meals to eat.

He smiled and pressed it into my hands, “Yes. This way when you come back to play again you’ll know what you’re doing.”  He laughed.

I thanked him profusely and left with my parents back out into the cold December air. He waved to me. I waved to him. “Look what he gave me, Mom! It’s really cool. It’s a new kind of game!” As we drove away, I had the box open and was looking over the items inside, flipping through the book.

It was the last time I would see my friend.

Time passed.  We didn’t make the two hour trip as often.  People change.  Kids don’t really have firm control of their destiny, let alone long drives.  Things shift.  Life takes you on different turns and then, before you know it, you have lost touch with someone.   That was before the internet and easy communication.

I went home and poured over the book.  I made a dungeon.  I made several characters. It was the holiday break and at the first opportunity I had a friend or two over and we started to play.  We played very badly but we played.  I discovered that a local hobby store in my small Indiana town carried some modules and books.  Over the next few years, I moved on to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and became a poster child for the Stranger Things cast.  I ran a game.  My buddy ran a game.  Then another buddy was running a game.   We talked about the game during lunch breaks at school.

You know how it goes, right?

And that’s how it all started.  From a simple, generous gift came a lifetime of creativity, stories, drawings, maps, friends, adventure, laughter and fun.  A simple act of generosity followed by infinite ripples of effect after effect flowing outward over the decades.

That’s how I want it to continue.

It’s the most important part.  It’s the bottom line behind this entire project and all that I have planned here.

It’s a gift.

I hope you like it.