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.


  1. Fantastic series of blog entries, Trent! And I have to say that your last paragraph is dead on. So many people take the game too seriously, and forget that it is a social event, an underlying reason to get together. This is one of the reasons I prefer to play with people whom I'm friends with first.

    1. Agree 100%. The social aspect is, at the end of the day, a crucial part of the game. That's why games with friends (or, at least, like-minded people) are always the best.

    2. One of the things the dynamic of these games helped me to realize is that while when reading the books and thinking about playing you imagine it one way, when you've got a whole group of people and everyone is engaging and imagining things their own way, it's completely different experience, much more about social interaction with the other players at the table than the imaginary world or scene.

      For some people that's a bug - they'll try to force people into doing it their way or complain and sulk that they're not - but I figured out that it's a feature - that the unpredictable alchemy of having a half dozen different imaginations working together and riffing off of each other is more fun than one person (either me or someone else) having total control.

      I thought as a kid that the "ideal" version of the game was supposed to be one thing, but it turns out it's something else that's in some ways almost the opposite. When the script goes out the window and the other people start doing things you'd never have predicted is when it starts getting really fun!

  2. Wonderfully insightful on how the game was played by its premier founder.

    When playing with the home campaign, our best days oscillate between abject fear of the unknown and raucous laughter at the absurd situations and goings-on. Even when I first played the game in the 80's, there was a python-esque element to it all. Here was this perfectly dark and sober world---punctuated by spots of wild, unpredictable, and down-right silly magic---in which we, the party, cut ridiculous capers and generally muddled our way through like imbeciles, all the while attempting to look dignified. Meanwhile, your so-called allies (and the DM) would laugh themselves silly at each of your missteps. Sure it hurt when your beloved character reached the end of the line, but the trip was well worth it. Roll up another and start again.

    D&D was (and still is) an amazing and wonderful game. Its tempting to get too stressed about it when things don't go the way we planned. We just have to keep reminding ourselves if we aren't laughing and having fun, then what's the point? Any DM that loves his carefully crafted world more than the fun of watching what the players do it to, needs to take a "time out".

    Thanks again for this article. Being able to read about and share the joy of this odd pastime with others just extends the fun beyond the brief time slices in which I am able to play.

    1. The key, I think, is "intense but not serious." The stakes are high, and you know that if you screw up your character is going to die, and you really don't want that to happen, but you're also constantly laughing and busting each others' chops and having fun. When the stakes are low, or the game tries to be funny, it never works. In order for the laughs to feel genuine they have to come organically and they have to be juxtaposed with, as you said, abject fear - "oh crap, if I don't do something RIGHT NOW I'm going to die!!!" :)

    2. Such a great point---don't try to be funny. The environment is the "straight-man" so-to-speak. Anything else is a mess.

      Although, I do sometimes have the normally straight-faced NPCs make askance inquiries (or even guffaw if they're a bumpkin) at the PC's missteps. That's usually an opening for their fellow party members to jump on the bandwagon of mockery.

  3. Thanks for the writeup, it was a lot of fun to read. Necropolis almost seems a lost AD&D module, sort of a continuation of the high level work Gygax was doing with Isle of the Ape. And I remember he included as the finale of an "All Gygax D&D Campaign" when asked in one of his Q&A threads.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. Great story.
    Amateur drama and in character role play always is weird to me.