Wednesday, May 31, 2017

My games with Gary (part 2)

Gary showed us the outdoor map of the necropolis and told us that we'd explored it and found what we believed to be the entrance to the main tomb. If you're familiar with Necropolis you know that it's very heavy on boxed text, especially at the start of the tomb section - there are at least 2 or 3 long boxed-text descriptions. Gary read all of those aloud to us, as nearly as I can recall exactly like what's in the published module. However, unlike the mumbled monotone that most DMs have when reading boxed text, Gary's reading was very dramatic - sort of like an actor declaiming a monologue, with lots of pregnant pauses and heavy emphasis on key words or phrases, careful enunciation, lots of eye-contact.

We were of course already on edge, pretty certain that we were really in for it, and these long boxed-text narrations served to ratchet up the tension considerably. They were the opposite of boring. We were all paying rapt attention, trying to glean as much info and whatever clues we could, hanging on every word, hoping not to miss some vital clue (though, of course, that's exactly what we did...).

There was an obvious break in tone and style between when Gary was reading boxed-text and when he wasn't. The boxed text was read directly from the module, not summarized or paraphrased at all, in a very formal tone. It was obvious that he was reading boxed text and that it was important and we should be paying attention. But once he'd finished, his tone was extremely loose and informal.

Most DMs I had played under to that point, especially the RPGA DMs, drew a pretty firm line between "in-character" and "out-of-character" communication, and tended to discourage the latter. The tone was pretty dry and formal and the idea seemed to be that when you were playing you were in the game. Gary's game wasn't like that at all. Except when he was reading boxed text, he was totally informal, very chatty, very prone to OOC and off-topic digressions. He also gave tons of ongoing feedback to us about how well or poorly he thought we were doing, and what would have happened (better or worse) if we'd done things differently. Effectively, after each encounter he'd go "behind the scenes" and tell us about it from the DM perspective. This was totally different than anything I'd ever experienced before - pretty much every other DM I'd ever played with tried to maintain as much of a poker face as possible and to give out as little info as possible - but it both made the game much more engaging - none of our attention ever wavered - and gave us a much better idea of how the adventure "worked" and what was expected of us, which helped us to improve our performance. The game wasn't a confrontation, it was more like a conversation.

Gary didn't use miniatures or any visual aids. Everything was described verbally. We weren't making a map, but everything was described to us in a level of detail as if we were - dimensions of rooms and hallways, locations of doors, etc. When we went down hallways he would call off the distances 10 feet at a time as we went - 10', 20', etc.

We didn't do very well at first. If you know the module, you know that the foyer of the tomb has about a half-dozen death traps out in the open and a secret door leading to the rest of the tomb. We, alas, managed to spring all of them. Once we had sprung them we were good at reacting quickly and well to get out of them, so nobody died, but we weren't at all good at avoiding even the fairly obvious traps. We wandered into the maze area - one player, definitely the sharpest of the four of us, was able to remember all the turns and repeat them back to Gary, so he allowed us to escape. I can't remember exactly how we dealt with a couple of the other traps, but we definitely sprung them.

One particular incident stands out strongly in my memory: There's an alcove with carvings of various monsters. If you touch a carving one of those monsters appears in the dungeon and attacks. We managed to do that a couple times. If you touch a carving and maintain contact the walls of the dungeon fade away and you find yourself transported to a world full of that monster-type. We did that too, with a carving of a vampire. Once we realized what had happened the quick-thinking player turned his Anything Sword into a Luck Blade and used a Wish to get us out of there and back to the dungeon. Gary liked that move a lot. He then went off on a tangent about how if we'd stayed in that world it might have ended up something like one of his favorite books, I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, and went on at some length about the premise of the book and how highly he recommended it to all of us. I'd never heard of that book or author before, but started looking for it. I believe it was out of print at the time, so it took a few years to find it, but eventually I did, and read it, and loved it. Richard Matheson became one of my favorite authors, and I enjoy telling people that his books were personally recommended to me by Gary Gygax :)

Eventually, after we'd exhausted all of the other possibilities, every red-herring and trap, we triggered a bit of sarcastic boxed-text where the spirit of Rahotep insults us and gives a pretty-much-impossible-to-miss clue about how to find the secret door leading into the main tomb. With that huge hint, we figured it out, and all felt really dumb that it had taken us so long. Gary laughed, and pointed out that at least we all survived and therefore didn't do too badly. Once we had opened that door, Gary decided that was a good stopping point, but offered to let us all come back the next day to continue playing, if we wanted to.

By that point it was late, John's game had ended a half hour or so earlier, and my mom (or maybe his mom?) had shown up to take us home. Thankfully they were cool about it and willing to sit around and wait until my game finished, rather than making me leave it early. John was definitely jealous, especially because his adventure sucked, but wasn't mean about it. He thought it was really cool that I'd been able to play with the inventor of the game. Even our parents admitted that was pretty cool, though my mom complained how much I smelled like cigarette smoke :)


  1. Yeah, I liked I AM LEGEND adaptations with Price and Heston but I can't watch Will Smith movies anymore he's too annoying. In the story, the premise of modern vampires that are covered in a substance that keeps them preserved but if its interrupted (a stake) was pretty cool.
    In regards, to playing with Gary that is pretty cool. I never played anything with him so I can definitely appreciate. I had the chance but I had passed on going to because my plane almost crashed the year before so I was off planes for a while (a few years later I had another bad landing at Laguardia so I haven't flown since!) If I went back in time things probably would fall in place exactly as it happened. As for the 80's I never went to any convention until I went to a comic convention in the 1990's. I spent a decade in a gilded cage in the 80's when I was a teenager and wasn't allowed to go to college but I could buy out an entire store of merchandise. So cons were right out! Honestly? I still don't like cons. If something like the idea (not the reality) of Gary Con was during the Summer that would be great but otherwise I'm not freezing my ass off or sliding off a road for shit that I could get at any local NYC nerdfest rpg con. I'm being force marched into Comic Con this Fall... "Do it for the kids..." BARF! ;)

    1. Gaming cons are weird, and a lot of what I used to like best about them (shopping for obscure and out-of-print stuff, hearing publishers talk about their new and upcoming stuff) has been replaced by the internet. I'll probably write a whole blog-post on this sooner or later...

    2. Well, I think that the whole traveling to a convention thing kind of evolved into instead of going out for drinks afterwards rather making the whole trip about other things you can get away with. Seen way too much of that!

  2. I wonder: "He also gave tons of ongoing feedback to us about how well or poorly he thought we were doing, and what would have happened (better or worse) if we'd done things differently. Effectively, after each encounter he'd go "behind the scenes" and tell us about it from the DM perspective." Do you think maybe he played the game this way because he was play testing the module and was doing analysis, or do you feel he ran all of his games this way?

    1. It was a playtesting thing or a con thing (or both), because in stories from other people who played with him he didn't do it - or at least not as much of it. I'm used to having s post-session "debriefing" with this sort of feedback and commentary, but these games with Gary are the only ones where it happened during play, after each encounter. But I'm glad he did it because, as I said, it helped us improve our performance in realtime, which made the game a lot more enjoyable for us.

  3. What a great story. No wonder Necropolis is your favorite module.