Friday, June 30, 2017

Gaming at conventions

As a kid I attended several gaming conventions - my home-town sponsored two (Glathricon, an all-gaming con, in the summer, and ConTact, a more traditional SF con with a large gaming component, in the fall) that I went to starting in the fall of '86 until the sort of withered away in the early 90s, and starting in 1988 I also attended GenCon every year through 1997 (the summer after I graduated college; right before I moved permanently to the other side of the country). At those conventions I played a lot of games, both rpgs and more traditional boardgames, minis games, etc. By and large, and certainly with some notable exceptions, most of the rpg games weren't very good.

Part of it is that a big element of the appeal in rpgs is the open-ended campaign structure - maintaining the same character through a series of adventures, watching him or her become more powerful and develop more of an individual personality, learning more about the world, developing friends and enemies (players and NPCs alike), becoming involved in long-term plots that might play out slowly over months or years, and so on. Another big element of the appeal of rpgs is that they're a social game played with a group of friends, and in many play-sessions as much or more of the fun comes from the social interaction between the players than the ostensible action of the game. As a kid I thought you were supposed to resist that - to keep the action focused in-game and avoid distractions and digressions - but playing with Gary Gygax taught me it's closer to the opposite.

At a convention, where you've got a single 4-hour block of time and are likely playing with a group of mostly strangers, both of those are eliminated, so a convention game is necessarily going to be a different sort of beast than a game at home with your buddies. The earliest convention games of D&D seem to have been, effectively, demonstrations - you'd sit down for a couple of hours and do some exploring inside Greyhawk Castle or the Sunken City of Kalibruhn or wherever, and hopefully would have a good enough time that you'd be inspired to pick of a copy of the rules and take them home and start your own campaign. Gary Gygax came up with a different idea for the first Origins convention - a tournament where various teams went into Gary's almost-cartoonishly-deadly "Tomb of Horrors" (originally devised as Gary's way of testing the skill and mettle of overly-confident players) and the group that made it the furthest before dying was the winner. This formula was refined over the next few years and eventually became what we see in published AD&D modules derived from tournaments like C1, C2, and the A-series: teams of players go through the same adventure, facing the same encounters, and a score is kept with a basic formula of how many encounters were completed graphed to how many characters survived plus bonus points or penalties for particular smart (or dumb) actions. As the tournaments got bigger, they began to have multiple rounds, where the teams that scored best in the first round advanced to the second round (usually a more difficult set of encounters), those who scored best in the second round advanced to the finals (usually something completely off-the-wall), and the team that scored best in the final round was the winner.

That's a mutated form of D&D that doesn't have a lot in common with the default campaign style of play (strategies that are successful in one will lead to failure in the other, and vice versa), but it's still fun in its own way: knowing that the clock is ticking, and that your group's performance is being judged against other groups, puts a lot of pressure on and leads to some really intense and exhilarating play. I played in a couple of tournaments that were run this way (the AD&D Open at GenCon continued to function in this manner even after other tournaments didn't) and although I never did very well, because I was always teamed with strangers, and these adventures placed a very high premium on effective teamwork, I always had fun.

Sadly (from my perspective), when Frank Mentzer founded the RPGA (RolePlaying Game Association, an organization run by TSR with the mandate "to promote quality roleplaying and bring fans of roleplaying games together") in 1981, the way D&D tournaments were organized and scored changed dramatically. Instead of team vs. team, advancement (and, in the final round, winners) were determined individually, based on a vote by the other players (and possibly the DM - I can no longer remember whether the DM got a full vote or was only a tiebreaker) at the end of the session. Along with this, the RPGA introduced an "XP" system for its members where the more tournaments you played in and the better you placed the more points you earned, and as you increased in "level" you got to play in Master-only (and, eventually Grand Master-only) tournaments. This had an obvious and profound (and possibly unintentional?) effect on how tournament play worked. For one thing, teamwork no longer mattered, and neither did process through the adventure. The only thing that mattered was how much you impressed the other players. Maybe they'd be impressed by your tactical acumen and rules-knowledge and effective leadership (and that's what the early RPGA tournaments seem to have expected, because structurally they're still very similar to the pre-RPGA tournaments - linear gauntlets of puzzles and combat), but way more often the vote went to the "best roleplayer" - the hammy actors and scene-stealers. This created a spiral of perverse incentives where players would attempt to out-ham each other, and the adventure itself became mostly irrelevant, until the writers caught on and changed the nature of the adventures to become, basically, just a series of role-playing cues.

I was shy and socially-awkward as a kid, especially around strangers and older people (which meant pretty much everybody at cons). Therefore, I tended to do really badly in these games and rarely advanced beyond the first round. I suppose the idea was that shy kids would be drawn out and feel comfortable enough to participate, but for me it was more the opposite - the more emotive and hammy the other players got, the more I was likely to clam up. This was frustrating in a number of ways: one is that it wasn't much fun for me, another is that it suggested I wasn't actually very good at my favorite game that I'd been totally obsessed with for several years, and called into question whether I'd even really understood the game, because the way it was played in RPGA events was very different than what I'd imagined from reading the books or how we always played at home. This is about the time I probably should have decided the game wasn't really for me after all and declare that I'd "outgrown" it, which is what most other kids did (and, non-coincidentally this was right at the time, in the late 80s, when the fad years were over and the popularity of the game was in steep decline), but for whatever reason I didn't - I kept going to the cons and playing in tournament events that I didn't really enjoy and wasn't very good at. I suppose I was still hoping if I played in enough I might finally find a good one.

And that is, of course, exactly what happened when I lucked into those games with Gary at Glathricon '88. This, finally, was exactly what I'd always wanted D&D to be (and more). It was both a revelation (that my approach to D&D was much closer to how the inventor of the game did it than how everyone else did) and a huge confidence-booster (I was now assured that my approach was "right" after all). I hadn't seen it at the time, but years later I stumbled across a Dragon editorial by Gary (in issue #102, October 1985 - coincidentally one of his last editorials before his ouster) where he expressed the same sentiments - decrying "the current vogue of placing seemingly undue importance" on the "theatrical side of gaming," which he felt "tend[ed] to make playing out an adventure more of a children’s 'let’s pretend' activity than an action-packed game which involves all sorts of fun, including the playing of a role but other fun aspects as well." My approach to gaming was out of fashion in the late 80s, but at least I had the inventor of the game in my corner :)

I still played in a few more RPGA tournaments (in retrospect I'm not sure why - inertia?) but came to realize that those were the least fun games, and that it was much more fun (and instructional) to play in games that went all the way back to the original model - creators of the game giving, basically, demonstrations. That's effectively what the Gygax games had been, and I had similarly fun experiences playing games like Cyberpunk, MegaTraveller, RuneQuest, and Amber at GenCon with "insiders" - not usually the creator of the game, but friends of the creator who'd played with them and been involved in the development and had a "feel" for the game that only comes from that sort of close, long-term association. I almost always came away from those games excited and enthused, eager to share the experience with all of my friends at home (and it's no coincidence that those are the games we played most through the late 80s & 90s). I think there's really something to playing a game with the creator, or someone closely associated with and who learned from the creator, that helps you understand and appreciate it in a way that reading the books alone can never do.

Eventually, for whatever reason - because I wasn't as interested in the new games being released, or felt I'd learned enough, or just realized that playing games with strangers that weren't as good as what I could play at home with my friends wasn't an effective use of my time, I stopped playing even in those demo-games, and the last 3-4 years I attended GenCon, and the last year or two I attended Glathricon, I didn't play in any rpg events, RPGA-sponsored or otherwise. Instead, I realized that the most fun was to be had in large-scale, multiplayer board and minis games. At Glathricon for several years running, a guy named Greg Poehlein (who was one of Evansville's local rpg-industry celebrities, having co-written the Star Trek and Doctor Who rpgs for FASA) ran an event called the "Glathricon 500," which was his house-ruled adaptation of Avalon Hill's Speed Circuit for Matchbox cars on a huge oval-shaped track. This was an all-day event that usually drew around 20 players. Likewise, there was a group who every year at GenCon staged huge 25mm-scale British colonial minis games, with full terrain and hundreds of figures per side (the two I remember were vs. Zulus and vs. Afghans) - again, an all-day event with a dozen or more players involved. These were things I'd never have had the resources or the number of players (or the space!) to attempt at home, and they were always tremendous fun and I looked forward to them year after year (and was crushed when I attended Glathricon '95 and found that "the 500" had been canceled).

Is there a point in all of this? Not really; it's just a reminiscence. But there are, perhaps, a few takeaways that might be useful to people attending, or thinking of attending, a gaming con: (1) the games aren't going to be much like, and probably won't be as good as, your games with your friends at home; (2) tournament-games are especially wack, unless it's a team-tournament and you're there with enough of your home-group to make up a whole team; but (3) if you get a chance to play a game with its creator it's probably worth doing because you'll likely pick up some insight into the expected play-style and get a better feel for the game than you can get from reading a rulebook; and (4) if they're running any large-scale, multiplayer board or minis events, jump all over that, because that's something you can't do at home, and they tend to be really fun!

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

[D&D] World of Greyhawk cultural approximations

The World of Greyhawk includes a large number of nation-states. While the gazetteer does a good job of providing population figures and natural resources and details of the size and composition of the nations' armies and traditional alliances and enmities, it doesn't have much to say about their culture. Some hints can be picked up (mostly in connection with the "exotic" realms near the edges of the map), but there's tendency to just portray most of them as having the same "generic fantasy" monoculture. Gary's Greyhawk novels didn't really help with this.

Therefore, in order to add more flavor and make things a bit more interesting for myself, I've found it helps me to visualize and differentiate in my mind the various states of the Flanaess to figure out which earth-nation they seem to most closely approximate and use that as a guide towards personifying their cultural attitudes and incidental color (i.e. stuff like accents, naming conventions, way of dressing, typical cuisine, and so on). A few of these (like Ket, Perrenland, and the Rhennee) are obvious from the published material, others I made up myself (so they're more tenuous and strained and not necessarily compatible with the "canon" of the published products and novels).

This is intended as a very rough and superficial approximation, so it's important not to overdo it and take the approximation too literally - everything is, of course, filtered through a layer of fiction and fantasy. I'm not saying these Greyhawk locales are or should be exactly like earth locales (that undermines the point of creating a fantasy world in the first place), just that I've found this to a convenient short-hand improvisational aid, a way to quickly add some flavor and detail.

Bakluni areas: Persia (further differentiation likely at some future point)
Ket: Turkey
Perrenland: Switzerland
Wolf & Tiger Nomads: Central Asia
Iuz & Horned Society: Russia
Furyondy: Germany
Veluna: Austria
Keoland: England
Yeomanry: Wales
Geoff & Sterich: Scotland
Bissel: Ireland
Sea Princes: Barbary Coast
Ulek States & Celene: Fairyland from British folklore
Central Flanaess (Verbobonc/Kron Hills/Gnarley Forest/Greyhawk/Cairn Hills/Nyr Dyv/Upper Wild Coast): American midwest
Lower Wild Coast & Pomarj: Pirates of the Caribbean
Rhennee: Romani
Bandit Kingdoms: American Old West (Shield Lands = Texas)
Rovers of the Barons: Sioux Nation
Duchy of Tenh: Iroquois Confederacy
Theocracy of the Pale: Puritan New England
Blackmoor: Minnesota
County & Duchy of Urnst: Belgium & Netherlands
Nyrond: France (Almor = Avignon)
Barbarian States: Scandinavia (further differentiation (say Frost Barbarians = Sweden, Snow Barbarians = Denmark, etc.) left as an exercise for the reader)
Ratik: Poland
North Province & Bone March: Balkans/Romania
Great Kingdom: Italy (Medegia = Papal States, Rel Astra = Venice)
South Province: Spain (Onnwal = Galicia, Irongate City = Barcelona, Idee = Portugal, Sunndi = Basque country, Lordship of the Isles = Balearics)
Spindrift Isles: Greece
Scarlet Brotherhood: medieval Syria ruled by a secret cabal of Nazis

Saturday, June 24, 2017

[music] Up the Irons!

My favorite rock band in the 80s (at least the second half of the decade, when I had an opinion on such things) was unquestionably Iron Maiden. They were a heavy metal band, with all of the associated imagery and attitude, but they were also, secretly, sort of a prog-rock band, if that style of music hadn't declined precipitously in popularity in the mid-late 70s.

They had Bruce Dickinson with his Conan the Barbarian haircut bellowing like a Viking out of a Wagner opera, twin lead guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith trading off face-melting solos, leather and spikes like Judas Priest, an elaborately theatrical stage set with pyrotechnics and a giant papier-mache monster head, violent and gory imagery featuring Eddie the zombie on their album covers, and their song "The Number of the Beast" got them accused of being Satanists. They were very loud and very aggressive and seemed very dangerous and very cool to my pre-teen self.

All of the "hoods" in my middle-school, the mostly-poor kids who had long hair and smoked, loved Iron Maiden, right alongside KISS and AC/DC and Def Leppard and Ozzy Osbourne (Metallica hadn't really caught on in our area yet). They were always surprised that I liked that stuff too, and it was how I bonded with that group, even though the teachers didn't like it and thought I was being led down the wrong path (about which I loved proving them wrong and shaming their close-mindedness).

Because what those teachers didn't understand (and, to be honest, I'm not sure many of the kids understood either) was that although they looked and sounded like other metal bands, Iron Maiden were smarter and more sophisticated - they had lyrics about history and literature (and even did a 13-minute-long version of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner") and they were seemingly just as influenced by 70s prog-rock bands like Genesis and Jethro Tull as they were by Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and Thin Lizzy. This was, effectively, music for nerds that happened to also appeal to the cool and tough kids. As a nerd-by-inclination who also wanted to hang out with the cool kids, it was right up my alley, almost like it had been tailor-made for me.

The 80s were Iron Maiden's decade. The first, self-titled, album was released in 1980, and they put out just about an album a year through the rest of the decade, including The Number of the Beast in 1982 (the first album with Bruce Dickinson; their first hit and the one that got them pegged as Satanists), Piece of Mind in 1983 (where the full "classic era" lineup was finally in place), Live After Death in 1985 (their first live album, recorded in Long Beach, CA (I now know some folks a few years older than me who were in attendance), and the first of their albums I owned), and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in 1988 (a full-on prog-rock-style concept album; I was totally obsessed by this album, wore out two different cassette tapes by listening to them so much, and - naturally - tried to adapt its story into a D&D campaign).

In the 90s they released some sub-par albums and had some lineup changes and I lost interest and moved on to other types of music - like punk and grunge and "alternative" stuff that the older high-school kids were into. From what I understand around the turn of the century Iron Maiden got the classic lineup back together and are still regularly releasing new albums and touring the world and playing to ridiculously large crowds and are probably bigger and more popular now than they were in the 80s, but I never got back into it. I did upgrade a few of my cassettes to CDs and still pull them out for a nostalgic listen now and then, though, and it instantly takes me back to being in seventh grade, listening to those albums on endless-repeat. I like it better that way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

[D&D] Rescuing Good King Despot

I got a request from a reader to write a bit about The Abduction of Good King Despot, by Will & Schar Niebling and Russ Stambaugh, published in 1988 by New Infinities Productions as part of their "Gary Gygax's Fantasy Master" line, but written several years earlier.

Will Niebling was the head of the Metro Detroit Gamers, and an early champion of D&D tournament play at the MDG's annual Michicon and Wintercon conventions. They commissioned Gary to write The Lost Caverns of Tsojconth as the D&D tournament for Wintercon '76 and published it in a limited edition (before Gary revised and expanded it into AD&D module S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, published by TSR in 1982). Another of their tournaments, Quest for the Fazzlewood, was also republished by TSR, as D&D module O1: The Gem and the Staff. Sometime around 1978 or 79 Will Niebling went to work for TSR as Executive VP of Sales and Marketing, a position he held through 1982. According to Michael Witwer's Empire of the Imagination Niebling departed due to dissatisfaction with how the Blume brothers were (mis)managing the company, which was a sore blow to Gary, who considered him a friend and ally and without him felt increasingly isolated. Post-TSR, in the 90s, Niebling became CEO of Mayfair Games, the company that obtained a license to print money as the American distributor for the Settlers of Catan series of boardgames. Schar Niebling, as far as I know, is Will's wife. Russ Stambaugh was a student at the University of Michigan (and presumably a member of the MDG) at the time this adventure was written, and later went on to a distinguished career outside of gaming as a psychologist and sex therapist. I'm fairly certain this module is the only published D&D/rpg writing credit for any of the three.

Per his introduction (and backed up by later statements in online Q&As), this was Gary Gygax's favorite D&D adventure that he didn't write himself. From what I gather, it was originally written sometime in the late 70s and was probably used as a tournament module. Gary picked up a copy and carried it around with him to run for impromptu games. After parting ways with TSR in 1986 and founding New Infinities Productions as a successor company, Gary was looking for things to publish. They started with a bunch of novels (of which Gary's Gord the Rogue series are the best-known) and the woefully ill-conceived Cyborg Commando rpg (about which the less said the better), before launching the Fantasy Master line of (ostensibly) "generic" rpg supplements and adventures. One of them was The Town of Baldemar, a decent but kind of bland effort from Bob Blake (who organized the D&D (later AD&D) Open tournament at GenCon for many years). Another was The Convert, a tournament module Frank Mentzer had written for the RPGA (and over which TSR sued New Infinities to stop publication). A few more titles had been announced but not published by the time New Infinities folded in late 1988, including Gary's own Necropolis, which I was lucky enough to participate in a couple playtest sessions of, and which later resurfaced first as part of the Dangerous Journeys rpg (in 1992) and then in a conversion for the "d20" system by Necromancer Games (in 2003). But by far the most noteworthy and memorable of those Fantasy Master products that actually got published was The Abduction of Good King Despot.

The adventure is a (perhaps the) quintessential example of a "puzzle dungeon" (another example of which is TSR's module C2: The Ghost Tower of Inverness - which, probably not coincidentally, was also originally run as a tournament by the MDG at Wintercon '79). This is related to but different than the "funhouse" dungeon (exemplified by the likes of module S2: White Plume Mountain and Judges Guild's Tegel Manor) because where those tend to be a more random or arbitrary hodgepodge of elements, puzzle-dungeons have a linear structure (they're based around "solving" a central puzzle) and a tight thematic structure and organization (that just happens to eschew "realism" and "sensible dungeon ecology"). I don't like to give too many spoilers about this adventure's structure, because figuring out its logic is a big part of the challenge and fun of the adventure, but I'll do so anyway (skip the next, indented, paragraph if you don't want to know):

The premise of the adventure is that Good King Despot has been kidnapped by the insane wizard Ignax, who has set up the dungeon as a test for would-be rescuers. The dungeon is a linear gauntlet of 13 encounters thematically tied to the signs of the Zodiac, in order (Aries room followed by Taurus room followed by Gemini room, etc.) along with dead-end red-herring encounters (some dangerous traps, some pointless time-wasters, a couple potentially beneficial) that can be avoided if the players figure out a pattern: the floor tiles of the dungeon are colored in a repeating pattern of red (fire), green (earth), white (air), blue (water); each "correct" encounter matches the element for its astrological sign (so the floor outside the Aries room is red, the floor outside the Taurus room is green, etc.) while the red-herring rooms are the other colors (so the red-herring rooms matched to the Aries room have green, white, and blue floors outside their doors). Each of the main Zodiac encounters has as its treasure a large gemstone corresponding to that sign (diamond for Aries, emerald for Taurus, etc.). In the final (13th) encounter area, the key to freeing the imprisoned King Despot from suspended animation is to use six of the gems (the diamond, emerald, sapphire, pearl, opal, and topaz) to spell out the name D-E-S-P-O-T; the other six gems (along with anything they've picked up from the red-herring rooms) become the party's treasure/reward. The encounters start out as straightforward melee slugfests (Aries is a group of berserkers with ram-horned helmets, Taurus is a pair of gorgons, Gemini is twin frost giants), but as they proceed they become trickier and require less combat and more puzzle-solving (the Libra encounter is a room with a shifting floor, the Aquarius encounter is a room that gradually fills with water, etc.). I've run the adventure several times, and can attest that the further the players get into the dungeon the more the tension ratchets up and the more engaged they become, and as they overcome each challenge (and especially if they make it to and overcome the final challenge) there's an escalating series of cheers and high-fives. Successfully completing this adventure feels like a true accomplishment. 
It's no wonder Gary was so fond of this adventure. It's got seemingly everything he liked best in the game - it's fast-moving, action-heavy, has a lot of clever puzzles to challenge the players' problem-solving abilities, and doesn't take itself too seriously. It includes numerous pun-type jokes and "anachronistic" cultural references (to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, etc.), and the central thematic premise only really makes sense at the player-level, something that's never addressed in the adventure itself. The tone and feel reminds me a lot of Gary's own Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and I suspect is a fair representation of the mode of play in his Greyhawk Castle dungeons, before things became so serious.

It seem significant (and telling) that while Gary and New Infinities president Don Turnbull (formerly of TSR-UK) were both big fans of this adventure, Frank Mentzer was not and claims (note: Frank = ExTSR) that Turnbull "forced" them to publish it because he was friends with the author. In fairness to Frank, he's not the only one who feels that way. Particularly for 1988 (the era of Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms), this adventure was way out of step with the prevailing zeitgeist of what D&D adventures should be like. In recognition of that, New Infinities framed the adventure as an intentionally "retro" experience (as far as I'm aware the first rpg product to be marketed that way), which in retrospect is sort of a mixed blessing. On the one hand it allowed the adventure to be published in its full "funhouse" glory instead of attempting to water it down to conform to then-contemporary tastes, but on the other it caused them to exaggerate the old-fashionedness and "wackiness" in a way that feels like they were making excuses, that they were trying to create an ironic distance from the material as a defense against criticism. So we get a booklet of illustrations because that's a visual signifier of retro-ness (because old modules like S1, C1, and S3 had them) even though most of the illustrations are pointless and unnecessary (many of them are just portraits of the room's monster that don't convey any additional info beyond what's in the boxed-text), and we get a lot of apologetic "this is how things used to be" and "Ignax is a crazy wizard - don't think about it too hard" asides in the text, and we probably get more "jokey" encounters (like the Gnax Family portrait gallery and the talking goldfish) than we otherwise would have. In fitting with the times, there's also a full page of read-aloud backstory introduction about how the party was gathered together and sent on the rescue mission by Ignax's rival wizard Candelabra (who's busy schtupping the queen and doesn't seem all that eager to see the king return - which is presumably why he's sending a bunch of adventurers on the mission instead of doing it himself) which is both not as funny as it seems to think it is and entirely dispensable.

In addition to that "datedness" (ironically, dating the adventure to when it was published and adventures of its type were out of fashion, since more recently the taste-pendulum has swung sufficiently back in the other direction that there's more appreciation for the funhouse/less-serious approach) it's also worth pointing out that this adventure emphatically does not follow the "Jaquays ideal" of old-school dungeon-design - it's completely linear, the map isn't three-dimensional, there are no monster factions or any sense that there's anything going on in the dungeon when the PCs aren't there (the module doesn't address it, but presumably each encounter area is in some sort of temporal stasis until the PCs open the door to it), it's not expandable or replayable in any meaningful way, etc. If your criteria for how good a D&D adventure is are, in effect, "how similar is it to Caverns of Thracia?" then this adventure will fall very short. This is not an adventure for theorists - it's an adventure that comes alive at the table, that lives in the moment.

As is probably obvious by now, I really like this adventure and consider it one of my very favorites. I've run it three times (once all the way through, twice partially) and it's always been a huge hit with the players. Because of its structure, I've never tried to insert it in an ongoing campaign and don't think it's really suited to that type of use (which is why I put it in the second tier of the canon even though it's one of my favorites), but I consider it one of the very best "one-off" adventures, ideal as both a palate-cleanser - to remind players who've become too jaded and serious that the game is supposed to be about having fun - and as a compatibility litmus-test for players - if you don't have fun in this you're probably not going to like playing in my games, but if you do, hopefully you will. The only drawback there is that as-published I've found it to be too long to play through in a single session. I've found it takes 2-3 sessions to get through. Gary used to run it in a single session (and was still running it as late as 2005), but he used the original version, which was likely shorter than the published version - possibly including only the core encounters and not any of the red-herrings, which would definitely make it quicker, but would also lose some of the charm (a lot of the red-herring rooms are really fun!).

I highly recommend this adventure to anyone who thinks the above sounds fun or intriguing. Unfortunately it's not currently available for purchase (back around 2004 I asked Gary in an online Q&A if he knew who currently owned the rights to it, and he didn't) and not very many copies were printed in the first place so it's not all that easy to find second-hand copies. That said, it's obscure enough that not many people are seeking it out, and from what I understand copies show up on ebay fairly often and the prices they go for are pretty reasonable. Good hunting!

Friday, June 9, 2017

[TV] My Summer of Robotech

The thrill I felt watching Robotech on TV in the summer of 1985 is something I don't think I can possibly convey to anybody who wasn't there at the time.

As I've mentioned a couple times previously, cartoons in the 80s mostly weren't very good. There were a lot of de facto toy commercials (like The Smurfs and G.I. Joe and The Transformers and He-Man, and even Dungeons & Dragons to an extent), and FCC regulations for children's programming meant that the content was always very tame and there were explicit moral messages both within the stories and as ridiculous tacked-on PSAs. That meant I had pretty low standards and expectations. I watched these shows mostly in the background, while I did homework and/or worked on D&D stuff.

I was vaguely familiar with Japanase giant robots and animation - The Transformers and Voltron both started airing in the fall of 1984, ThunderCats started in he spring of '85, and around that same time a friend of my parents had visited Japan and brought back a couple of cool toys (that I later determined were part of the Gundam universe). So when Robotech started, I was intrigued enough to give it a shot, and it completely blew my mind. It was so much better - so much deeper and sophisticated, with so much more epic and complicated a story, than any other cartoon I'd ever seen that it didn't even seem fair to compare them.

The series ran for 85 episodes, which meant 5 days a week for 17 weeks, which is to say the entire summer. While most syndicated cartoons generally ran in the afternoons, from roughly 3:00 until the news at 5:00, for whatever reason our local station ran Robotech in the mornings. My mom was working at the time, so I was unsupervised (my sister was around, but she was a teenager and probably absorbed in her own stuff and glad to be left alone). I was taking summer-school trumpet lessons, and remember just having enough time to watch the show before getting picked up by my grandma (and later, after she got sick, by a friend of hers). I vaguely remember that school might have started back up a week or two before the series ended and I woke up early to watch the final episodes before going to school, which probably annoyed my mom.

I never watched soap operas, but that's exactly the relationship I had to Robotech that summer - I was totally absorbed in the characters and the story and couldn't wait for the next episode to see what would happen, and when something caused me to miss an episode I was devastated (we must not have had a VCR yet - or if we did I didn't know how to set up the timer to record when I wasn't home). I remember having mixed feelings about sharing it with my friends - on the one hand I wanted to because it was completely amazing and I was totally obsessed with it, but on the other I was apprehensive because I didn't know if they'd like it as much as I did, and didn't want to hear their complaints and bad-mouthing if they didn't. My memory is that they watched some episodes but because it was so heavily serialized they didn't really know what was going on so none of them but me ever got really into it the way I did.

As everybody nowadays knows, Robotech was actually three separate, unrelated Japanese series (Superdimensional Fortress Macross, Superdimensional Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada) that American producer Carl Macek bought the rights to and decided to combine into a single series because individually they didn't have the minimum number of episodes required for syndication sales. In the decades since, a lot of anime fans have mocked and criticized that move, as well as various editorial choices made in the adaptation (censoring bits, changing and Americanizing characters' names, and so on). While they do have a "purist" point, and when in later years I watched some of the original version of Macross with its original Japanese soundtrack it did seem like an improvement over the watered-down, Americanized version. But on the other hand, that's just retrospective nerd-snobbery. Robotech was completely revolutionary when it appeared on American TV in the summer of '85, and the shockwave it sent across the minds of kids like me is in a real sense the spark that first ignited interest in anime in the U.S., that allowed nerds in the 90s to have an opportunity to see those original versions and other shows and declare them superior and scorn Carl Macek for his meddling. Nobody else at the time was going to do what he did, and if he hadn't done it, no one else later on would have been likely to do it either. Remember, we already had Voltron, and although it looked similar (big robots, big-eyed humans) it wasn't at all the same. It was episodic, and didn't have anything even close to the same level of depth of characters or story. It was just another show. Robotech felt like something different.

The bittersweet epilogue to this story is that watching that initial run of Robotech set the bar so high for me that I spent pretty much the entire rest of my childhood and adolescence hoping to come across another show that was as good, and had the same level of visceral impact, and never really did. I guess nothing ever quite compares to first love, in syndicated cartoons as much as life...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

[D&D] Barbarism!

In 1981, the first issue of Polyhedron, the RPGA's newsletter/magazine (edited by Frank Mentzer), included an interview with Gary Gygax where he shared his thoughts about some of the changes and additions that people were making to AD&D that he wasn't in favor of:
I don't mind creativity, I don't mind mutation, if it brings out better game play, and superior gaming in general. But from everything that I can see, all the changes that are made are usually foolish and meant to either baby players along or kill them off, one way or another. They're destructive. rather than creative.
Just think about some of the outstanding changes that were made in Dungeons & Dragons games, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games too, for that matter, and look at what their effects are. Consider the "double damage on a natural 20", which of course seldom went to the monsters, but only went to the players, therefore making it yet easier for the players to kill monsters.
Critical hits? Again, players never took critical hits, only monsters, for some reason, would take critical hits. The weapons expertise idea, that a player's chosen weapon ... he or she would do a lot better with it. And yet, monsters fighting with their natural abilities. fang and claw - who could be more expert than a tiger with its claws and teeth? -weren't getting any bonuses.
The spell point system, which allowed magic-users to become veritable machine guns of spells without ever having to seriously consider what they were going to take and just shoot everything down, made the magic-user the only character worth playing.
Some of the proposed classes, such as the barbarian I've heard of and the mighty knight, and one or two others that I've heard of, create super-powerful characters who just can ... again, it was the only one worth being. Then you just go through and beat up on everything The changes in the demi-human races create, again, super-powerful characters, so that everybody wants to be a dwarf, or an elf, or whatever it is, and nobody wants to be anything else, because it overbalances in favor. And generally these are done at the whim of a Dungeon Master, or from group pressure. to make a rather uninteresting campaign where everybody is one thing. These are usually the Monty Haul games.
On the other hand, you have the really silly monsters, or sure-death traps for the DM who seems to be rather sadistic and just wants to proceed to kill all of his players regularly, in capricious ways, without giving them any chance whatsoever. That's also guaranteed to spoil a game.
There's a lot to unpack here. In his infamous Dragon #67 editorial that appeared in November 1982 ("Poker, Chess, and the AD&D Game") Gary drew a hard line and seemed to claim that anyone who added any unofficial material to an AD&D game was no longer playing AD&D. Here he's taking a more moderate and sensible position - that adding to and modifying the game is okay in theory, he just thinks most of the changes being made aren't improvements and are making the game worse, not better. People familiar with Unearthed Arcana, the Gygax-authored AD&D rules expansion released by TSR in 1985, likely feel some irony in this quote, since that book included many of the very things he's decrying above - weapon specialization, the barbarian and cavalier (knight) classes, and expansions to demi-humans - and critics of that book cite many of the same complaints about them that Gary does here (that they're too powerful and change the shape of the game too much). So what gives?

The answer is that this interview pre-dates the writing of the material in that book (which, as nearly as we can tell, took place sporadically between late 1981 and mid 1984), and a lot of what Gary was doing in that book was taking these concepts, which were obviously popular with players (hence their widespread inclusion as house-rules) and "doing them right," i.e. in a way that he felt fit within and added to the AD&D system. This becomes an interesting object-lesson in how Gary viewed the AD&D system - his sense of balance and priorities - and what he felt fit within it versus what he felt did not. Thus examining his additions sets an example that the rest of us can use for further expansion. It's illustrative to note, for example, that while Gary "rehabilitated" some of these ideas within the AD&D paradigm, there are others that he did not, presumably because he felt they were too incompatible with the game's core concepts - so there are no critical hit tables or spell-point system in Unearthed Arcana.

I'd like to take a particular look at Gary's treatment of the barbarian class, both because it's always been one of the more controversial additions (even before the book was published - it was immediately controversial from its first draft appearance in Dragon magazine) but is also one of my favorites.

The original edition of D&D included the "fighting man" class - a sort of professional soldier in the John Carter, Achilles, or d'Artagnan mold who could use any type of weapon or armor and proceeded over the course of play from being a mere "veteran" (just slightly better than an ordinary man-at-arms) to a "swordsman," "swashbuckler," "myrmidon," "champion," and ultimately a "lord" able to establish his own barony and collect taxes from the peasants. This is a very broad archetype, but it doesn't really capture the flavor of Conan (or his many, many literary imitations) - primitive barbarians who rely more on natural-born toughness and catlike reflexes than formal skill and training, who generally eschew heavy armor and fancy weaponry (preferring a trusty sword or axe), and have a special hatred for effete and corrupt wizards. I mean, you could play your D&D fighting man in that manner - declare that he will not wear armor and only use simple weapons and disdains magic - but doing so just creates an inferior character with a short lifespan. Underlining this disconnect, one of the illustrations in the original D&D set is of a long-haired, sword-wielding brute in a loincloth labeled "barbarian" - exactly the type of character the rules don't really support playing.

Given the popularity of these kinds of characters in fantasy literature, it's no surprise that players wanted characters like them, and nature abhors a vacuum so it wasn't long before fan-made barbarian classes began appearing. Two that I know of both appeared in print in 1977 - one version in issue #4 of the British D&D magazine White Dwarf, another in David Hargrave's unauthorized collection of D&D house rules, The Arduin Grimoire - and I'm sure there were many others besides these. These versions have some differences, and some elements in common - barbarians in both versions receive bonus hit points, have generally better saving throws (especially against Fear effects), have abilities to climb and hear noise like thieves, and can work themselves into a rage/frenzy to gain attack bonuses, in exchange for limitations of what kind of armor they'll wear and weapons they'll use, and how many languages they can learn. Interestingly, both versions require fewer XP to increase in level than standard fighters. The WD version has a couple of additional abilities - tracking like a ranger and catching missiles.

Another key development is that in The Dragon #36 (April 1980) Gary Gygax, inspired by Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay's "Giants in the Earth" column of AD&D stats for literary characters, provided an extensive set of AD&D stats for Conan, including a large number of special Conan-only rules: Conan has an increased move rate, has a super-humanly high Dexterity score (and corresponding AC bonus), has a higher Charisma score that applies only to women, has way more proficient weapons than his fighter-level would allow, has higher number of attacks than his fighter-level would allow, is treated as having a magic sword (for purposes of hitting creatures only harmed by magic weapons) even though he "never willingly uses a magic sword," has thief levels as well as fighter levels, has a bonus to surprise and reduced chance to be surprised, heals from damage at an increased rate (even when not resting), has bonuses to his saving throws, has latent psionic abilities to detect magic and danger, and various other bonuses.

When Gary decided to do his own version of the barbarian class for AD&D, which appeared in Dragon #63 (July 1982), he clearly looked primarily to his own treatment of Conan rather than to the existing "unofficial" barbarian classes that had been published. The class lines up pretty well with the stats he provided for Conan, with a few tweaks - instead of having superhuman Dex scores, they receive a higher-than-normal AC bonus for high Dex; instead of getting all thief abilities they get ad-hoc climbing and hiding abilities; instead of latent psionic abilities they get ad-hoc abilities to detect magic, illusions, and rear-attacks; their Charisma bonus applies to other barbarians rather than all females. They also get abilities to track like a ranger and to leap great distances. [The ability to hit creatures normally harmed only by magic weapons isn't included, but Gary added it as an addendum in Dragon #65, claiming its omission was inadvertent. The same is done with the doubled healing rate in Dragon #67.] The main drawbacks for the class are (1) they will never willingly/knowingly use any magic items, ever; and (2) they have an extremely steep XP chart for advancement - 6,000 XP to 2nd level (compared to 2,000 for a standard fighter), and 500,000 XP per level above 8th (compared to 250,000 XP/level above 9th for a standard fighter).

Gary's version of the class was immediately controversial - garnering complaints from the Dragon readership, mostly aimed at how seemingly-overpowered it was, despite the two heavy limitations. Gary devoted a significant chunk of the aforementioned "Poker, Chess, and the AD&D Game" ranticle in Dragon #67 to responding to criticism of the barbarian (suggesting his frustration wasn't only with people making inferior additions to AD&D but also, apparently, to people refusing to accept his additions - " All that is really being questioned is change, because this subclass
is different from others. Well, Gentle Players, that is what you’ve been asking for, and that is what I am here to do. Believe it or not, I actually know my game system and what or what will not work within its parameters!"). In addition to strongly arguing that the class is balanced (and, if anything, too weak - especially since long-term success depends on the character having multiple very high ability scores), he also added a couple of new details about the class: (1) that they can never be dual-classed - a character can neither switch to or from the barbarian to another class; and (2) barbarians do not require "training" in order to increase in level the way other AD&D characters do - rather, when they gain sufficient XP for the next level the increase is automatic.

After that, things were mostly quiet on the barbarian front for a while (though, notably, barbarian characters were included in both the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and LJN's line of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons toys, both in 1983). However, with the publication of Unearthed Arcana in 1985, the barbarian was back, and so was the controversy around them.

Apparently upon three years' further reflection Gary (likely in consultation with Frank Mentzer and/or Jeff Grubb, the two "developers" who were tasked with compiling Unearthed Arcana from Gary's notes while he was busy trying to keep TSR afloat) decided that his original version of the barbarian was too weak after all, because the revised version doesn't tone down any of the things from the magazine version that readers had complained about, and instead gives it several new abilities. A couple of them are minor (staggering the saving throw bonus vs. spells from a flat +1 to starting at 0 and increasing up to +3 as the barbarian gains levels; giving high-level barbarians the ability to summon a "horde" of other barbarians who will follow them for a short period of time), and another one is a clever and fun roleplaying-oriented addition (giving barbarians who destroy magic items the XP award as if they'd kept it - so a barbarian who dumps out a potion of growth earns 250 XP, one who snaps a broom of flying receives 2,000 XP, one who smashes a mirror of mental prowess gains 5,000 XP, etc.). However, appended to the end of the class description was a new table of abilities that has been the source of most of the vocal discontent with the class for the last 30+ years.

Right at the end of the class description is a table that enumerates the gradual restriction of both the prohibition on using magic items and the prohibition on associating with spellcasters (which in the magazine version had been a flat statement: "While a magic-user will be shunned by barbarians, clerical spells are not regarded as magic (except for the more powerful spells not typically usable by a tribal shaman or low-level cleric), so barbarians will associate with clerics on occasion") as the barbarian increases in level - at 2nd level a barbarian will associate freely with clerics; at 3rd level they will use potions; at 4th level they will use magic weapons; at 6th level they will associate with magic-users "if necessary," etc. This was presumably added because Gary (and/or Frank and Jeff) felt the blanket prohibition was too strict and made the class too weak at higher levels, but I think it was a mistake and is problematic in several ways.

One is that it renders the ability to strike as a magical weapon - one of the class's most unique and flavorful abilities - completely redundant: barbarians gain the ability to strike as if they were a +1 weapon at 4th level, which is per the chart the same level where they gain the ability to use actual magical weapons. Yes, a barbarian isn't as dependent upon magic weapons and can still beat on a demon with his or her fists, but what feels like it should be one of the main distinguishing characteristics of the class has been reduced to a footnote ability that will rarely, if ever, come up in actual play.

Secondly, it undermines the forceful argument that Gary put forward in Dragon #67 that the unique nature of the class - their huge number of special abilities - is justified in large part because, unlike other classes, the barbarian does not change to become more highly trained and sophisticated as they increase in level:
Playing as a barbarian is offered to players as a determined choice, not as one of several possibilities — or a mere afterthought. This is a part of the whole concept. Thus, the level title for a barbarian never varies. Such a character, properly role-played, is bred, raised, grows, and dies a barbarian. Barbarians do not need training to go up levels, because they gain no sophistication. They get tougher and more wily.
Easing the restriction on use of magic items as they increase in levels runs contrary to this and weakens the concept of the class. As they gain levels they become less distinctive and archetypal, which is the opposite of how it's supposed to work.

Thirdly, quantifying exactly how and when the barbarian is willing to associate with spellcasters turns a roleplaying suggestion ("magic-users will be shunned") into a hard-and-fast rule - no association at all prior to 6th level, "if necessary" at 6th, "occasionally" at 8th level and higher - that creates problems at the table: unless the DM is willing to run two or more different groups of players, then a choice must be made - either the group can include a barbarian, or it can include magic-users, but not both. Anecdotal accounts suggest this led to both lots of unhappy players who weren't allowed by the rest of their group to play the kind of character they wanted, and also led to lots of players just ignoring this restriction or undermining it in a sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink way (other characters distract the oafish barbarian while the elf fighter/magic-user casts his spells, etc.). In that same Dragon #67 article, Gary had this to say about the restriction on association:
The barbarian sees magic of two sorts — wizard magic and god magic. The former is cast by magic-users and their ilk — puling creatures all. The latter sort of dweomer must be tolerated, for who can argue with deities? A brooch of shielding (hopefully a rare find in any campaign) is so much dross to a hard-nosed barbarian. He’ll take the niggling damage from the magic-user (that’s what his high hit points are for) and then hew the cowardly craven to pieces. Those magics which allow saving throws are so much the better, for the barbarian does have a better chance to save against them. Those that happen, happen. With everything that the sub-class has, what real need is there for magic items? Scarce and rare finds in any well-run campaign, such wretched stuff is not for true humans (barbarians) in any event.
Magic performed by clerics, particularly clerics who serve the deities of the barbarian and his or her tribe, is another matter. That sort of thing must be abided. Who in a barbarian tribe would stoop to using even the dweomer of deities? Why, that’s simple: Men and women too old to fight, weaklings, and those odd individuals “touched” by some super-being. In a life-and-death situation, any self-respecting barbarian would allow a proper servant of a known deity to do whatever the deity directs through that servant. If it goes against the barbarian grain, then the offending cleric can be thereafter shunned — whether out of embarrassment, dislike, or fear is entirely open to question. If absolutely necessary, such spells can be tolerated for short periods of time, but by choice any barbarian must seek more direct solutions with arms. Obviously, faced with a situation which required the barbarian to perform a given plan, and that action was impossible without magic — possibly even wizard magic — the intelligent barbarian would be forced to stoop to such low means to reach the end. Shunning doesn’t mean the same as never associating with: Look the word up. Again, it doesn’t assert that barbarians will slay all magic-users just because they reek of noisome magic, nor does it state that clerics casting spells above 2nd or 3rd level will be done to death by the outraged barbarian. Low-level spells are merely the power of a shaman/cleric given by some deity — not even god magic. Higher-level spells of a clerical nature are disliked by barbarians, and they will not voluntarily be around those who make a practice of employing magic. Circumstances, as usual, alter cases. Remember the spirit of the rules, instead of trying to find the letter by reading between the lines.
This is a roleplaying guideline - the barbarian dislikes magic and spellcasting, and considers those who use it weaklings and cowards. A self-respecting barbarian doesn't need the aid of spells or enchanted items (due to their wide array of special abilities) and won't willingly employ them unless they have no other choice - and even then they will resist and resent it. They don't trust spellcasters, look down on them as weaklings and cowards, and will never seek their aid. That's pretty straightforward and easy to understand, and easy to portray at the table. There's no need for two separate parties - though if the DM is willing the barbarian is particularly well-suited to solo adventuring, and back in the 80s we had such a side-game that was a lot of fun - the barbarian just sneers and grumbles at spell-casting and acts superior, and as long as they can keep him or her from destroying the magical treasure the other players are probably fine with the barbarian's hard-line stance since it means more magical treasure and aid for them!

With all of these considerations, I really like Gary's version of the barbarian class, and encourage all AD&D DMs who don't allow it (and over the years I've encountered way more DMs who don't allow the class than who do) to give it another look. I think it's really fun to play, works really well in the "traditional D&D paradigm" of dungeon and wilderness-crawling (unlike the cavalier and acrobat, which both work best in more urban and civilized environments), and is a great addition.

Looking at how the class fits into the game, how it relates to and was balanced against the other classes, shows how Gary's situational, instinctive, and descriptive approach to rules-making worked in action. The barbarian stretches the rules-framework of AD&D in a way that created a lot of resistance among the more traditionally-minded , but when everything is taken together in a gestalt it works - it fits right into the game and expands and enriches it without changing it. The class is undeniably very front-loaded, and at first level will likely overshadow most other characters, but the steep XP chart means that unless the barbarian is doing a lot of solo adventuring on the side they will quickly fall behind the other characters, especially once "name level" is achieved. This makes them the opposite of magic-users, who start out extremely weak but eventually become the most powerful class. I like that symmetry, and the way it causes players with different characters to approach the game differently and employ different strategies.

I do have a couple of house rules for barbarians in my own games: as mentioned above, I revert to the magazine version's blanket restriction on magic item use, I allow barbarians to gain XP from magic items only from destroying them, not from selling them (closing a probably-unintentional loophole in the rules), and I also severely restrict their starting funds, to 5-30 (5d6) g.p., which helps balance them at first level (since they won't be able to afford armor or good weapons). Note that because barbarians don't have to pay for training they tend to acquire an enormous amount of gold during play, so I've also toyed with (but never formalized before now) some sort of ad-hoc "treasure attrition" rule for barbarians - that for each game-week of inactivity 0-90% of their cash-equivalent treasure simply, unaccountably, disappears. Presumably it was spent on ale and wenches, swindled away by unscrupulous merchants, or otherwise lost. This models the way that almost every Conan story began with him broke, no matter how much treasure he acquired at the end of the last one, and also prevents the situation of the barbarian becoming a de facto banker to the other PCs, which is totally out of character for the class.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

My games with Gary (part 3)

The next day I believe we were scheduled to begin at noon. Shortly before that, one of the players from the night before (the guy playing the cavalier - I'm pretty sure it was a cavalier) came up to me and John and told us that his friend wasn't able to play today but asked if John wanted to take over his character (the magic-user) and sit in. Of course we jumped all over that!

The second day game was in a smaller conference room with 3 or 4 tables, though I'm pretty sure we were the only group in our room. Somewhat to our surprise, we found that we were going to be joined by 4-5 more players, still all men, but older - all adults in their 20s & 30s. Because of the larger group, we sat at a long, rectangular table with Gary at one end.

Before we got started there was a fair amount of socializing and kibitzing. I'd brought my copy of Supplement I: Greyhawk and Gary autographed it. I remember one of the other players had the then-current issue of Dragon magazine handy and Gary thumbed through it briefly and commented about how he thought TSR wasn't doing a very good job with it (which was to become a recurring theme...). One of the new players had a set of pornographic "bondage minis" that he'd brought along and showed to Gary, who approved and made some lascivious remarks (another recurring theme).

The new guys got their characters ready - most of them used their own pre-existing characters - one guy in particular (I think maybe the guy with the bondage minis) had a character who was an Archer from Best of Dragon #3. Another guy rolled up a character on the spot - a barbarian named "Bubba" who had his battle axe chained to his wrist so he'd never be without it. I don't remember the other characters, but thinking back am pretty sure we still didn't have a single cleric, which is pretty remarkable and funny in retrospect.

Gary filled the new arrivals in on what they'd missed the night before - that our group had done a lot of "mostly pointless poking around" but had finally managed to find an entrance into the inner tomb. This went along with the same briefing we'd gotten about the house rules, about the Egyptian setting, the village of Aartuat, and the opportunity to buy figurines. One guy, I think maybe the same player with the bondage minis, said he wanted to buy a figurine of Set. All the rest of us went "oooh" and Gary gave him a classically withering "how much of a fucking idiot are you?" look, but let him do it.

With the much larger, and older, player-group the atmosphere was different the second day. Gary was a lot more garrulous and very free with stories about his time in Hollywood, the circumstances of his departure from TSR, and his very, very low opinion of both the brothers Blume and the Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan movies ("who ever heard of a Conan with brown hair?!").

We made pretty good progress in the adventure. When the iron skeletons attacked and the archer-player found out his arrows were basically worthless against them he was pissed - I think he might have even left early. My friend John had his magic-user cast a Chain Lightning spell that ended up bouncing around the room 20 times and did probably as much damage to us as the skeletons had. The lightning-quick zombie got back-stabbed and went down in a single round. Gary mentioned that his golden funerary mask was worth half a million BUCs and was radiating a strong magical aura. Bubba's player (who and already desecrated at least one altar by pissing on it) immediately busts in - "I grab it and destroy it!" Everyone else groans - Gary seems elated and happily informs us that the ruined mask is still worth maybe 5 or 10 thousand BUCs.

Eventually we get to the part with the spiked pits and the chain of curses. The cavalier was in the front and kept getting hit by the traps and then getting cursed by the next one. We found the secret door within the pit that led into the next section of the tomb, and at that point Gary called it a day. He showed us the map and gave us a summary of what would've happened - how the cavalier was being cursed and was almost certainly going to die, and how much trouble we'd all have been in if we'd gotten to the end and actually faced Rahotep. He told us that overall we'd done pretty well.

Gary's DMing style with the large group on day two was the same as it had been with the small group on day one: boxed text was read verbatim, but otherwise he was totally informal and chatty - still no screen, still no minis, still no rulebooks (though we had them and referenced some spell and item descriptions in them, and I remember at one point he did some mental math to calculate a fighter's THAC0, which I remember because at the time I wasn't using the +1 per level rule but started doing so afterwards in a attempt to be like Gary). He had his dice-set, and pointed out a particular white 0-9 d20 that he proudly informed us was his "lucky" die and had been killing characters since 1973.

We still didn't make a map.

Once the action started everything moved super-quickly: he went around the table asking for actions and if you hesitated you got skipped. I'd never played in a game with a DM who moved the game ahead as quickly as Gary did. No dithering or hesitation at all. It was very tense and exciting, very engaging, everybody was on the edge of their seats (except maybe the hapless archer guy).

But, along with that, he still basically took a short break after every room in which he'd critique our performance, tell us about what else could have happened in that room for better or worse, how some other playtest groups had fared, and would digress into off-topic stuff (the aforementioned Hollywood and Blume brothers stuff, as well as digressions about Egyptian culture and religion that had informed the design of the adventure - I remember him enumerating for us the various parts of the soul according to Egyptian beliefs - and so on).

This dynamic - super-intense action alternating with informal, off-topic chatter - was totally unlike any other game I'd ever played in (most of which had either been other kids totally out of their depth or RPGA DMs who wanted maximum in-character roleplaying and no outside distractions) and completely changed my understanding of how the game worked: that it was simultaneously more serious and intense than any other game I'd played in but also way less formal, because there was so much OOC banter and commentary. D&D as I'd experienced it with other DMs had always seemed focused mostly on story and character (and had tended to be kind of boring and not really live up to what I'd imagined it would be from reading the books); playing under Gary was the first time I really appreciated it as both a game and a social activity.

It was by far the most fun I'd ever had playing the game - I'd never had more intense action in a game, nor had I ever laughed as much. Ever since then in any game I've run I've striven to create something as close as I can to that experience - that mix of informal friendly conversation and intense, super-fast-moving action. I'm not as good at is as Gary was, because I'm not as natural a raconteur and storyteller as he was, and don't have that same commanding personality. But I think I'm pretty good at it.

Weirdly, even though shortly after this con I joined the Evansville Gaming Guild (the organization that put on the con and also had weekly game-nights that at their height were drawing probably close to 100 people) and stayed active in it for about 2-3 years, I don't recall ever seeing any of the other players from those games again (except for John of course). I guess maybe they were all in from out of town? I'm also not sure where all those extra players on the second day came from.

Later that summer I attended GenCon for the first time (and ultimately went for 10 years, until I graduated from college and moved to the west coast). I always made a point to attend Gary's seminars, but I never got another chance to play in one of his games (or to get the D&D white-box set that I picked up at the GenCon auction autographed).

Obviously this experienced is colored in my memory from being at an impressionable age and meeting one of my heroes (and having him turn out to be cooler and more interesting than I'd expected), and other people have read this account and dismissively informed me that Gary was clearly a bad DM and I'm just too starry-eyed and hero-struck to recognize it. They're certainly entitled to their opinions, but I don't think they're right. I think even if you remove the fact that I was thirteen and that Gary was a celebrity (at least in my eyes) I think he still ran a really good game. Yes, there was very little in-character roleplaying and he broke "kayfabe" all the time and wandered off-topic and all kinds of other things that any set of "how to be a good D&D DM" instructions will tell you never to do. But, dammit, that made the game more interesting and more fun (at least to me, but seemingly to all but one of the other players too)! Playing D&D is primarily a social experience - you're spending your afternoon or evening hanging out in a room with a bunch of people who are probably your friends. Yeah, you can be super-serious about it and ban all off-topic chatter. You can do the same thing when playing poker or bowling or singing karaoke. But it sure is way more fun when you don't.