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Wandering Monsters

My favorite Order of the Stick cartoon, back when I enjoyed that strip, concerned the number of random encounters the party should expect while traveling overland to a dungeon.  Here’s the link, but I will summarize: the joke is that despite different travel times, all parties should expect exactly one random encounter when traveling, as “no matter how long the journey, you only have one random encounter before everyone gets bored and moves on to the main plot.”

It struck me as especially funny because it’s exactly what I’ve found myself doing on numerous occasions.  It speaks to the battle between keep the main thing the main thing and the oracular power of dice.  And unfortunately, there’s no real general purpose rule for handling this balance.

I have certainly run plenty of dungeons where the dungeon itself dictates the rate at which one rolls for random encounters.  I have on occasion ignored those roles simply because cool stuff was already happening, and I know that I along with the players would all be irritated if the flow was interrupted by a random monster happening along.  On the other hand, when the party decides to lock themselves in a room and camp for two days, or is simply being slow, loud, and clumsy at moving through the dungeon, those rates of wandering monster rolls are exactly the mechanic I feel justified in applying to balance things out.  Without a tangible downside to slow progress, who wouldn’t spend a full turn carefully searching every 10′ increment of the dungeon for traps, secret doors, etc?

This is exacerbated when traveling in the wilderness.  My preferred campaign setting is a large world littered with small dungeons.  I’ve tried the whole mega-dungeon thing, and while I still find it enticing, for extended campaign play I prefer short and sweet dungeons punctuated by travel to differing towns and some random encounters between, be they monsters or civilized folk.  Still, that means a lot of random rolling when the players start moving around the map, and some times this can really bog down play.  Sometimes the dice just refuse to let up, and after the third or fourth random encounter along the road, it becomes tedious and boring to everyone at the table, the DM included.

On the other hand, our last session was entirely composed of this.  The players were simply trying to travel around the perimeter of a mountain — should be easy, right?  Well there’s no road, and the south side of the mountain borders a place known as “the Gloomwood”, a heavily wooded region rife with lycanthropes and similar such deadly creatures.

So I turned to my random charts.  Here’s the rules from the Expert book I use as my starting point:

When travelling, a party can become lost.  A party following a road, trail, or river, or led by a reliable guide, will not become lost.  Otherwise, the DM checks each day, rolling a six-sided die (1d6) before the party begins movement .

Expert Book, p. X56

While travelling in the wilderness, there is a chance the characters will encounter creatures just as they would in a dungeon.  The DM should decide how often encounter checks are made.  Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate.  No more than 3 or 4 encounter checks should be made per day.

Expert Book, p. X57

Charts are then given based on terrain type to show the chances in 6 for each event.  Usually it’s 1 or 2 in 6 for getting lost, likewise for encounters though in some rougher terrains it goes up to 3 in 6.  For well travelled areas I usually skip the lost check and limit the encounter check to once per day.  Sometimes I’ll even increase the die size to further lessen the chance of encounters.  In worst case situations, like say trying to circle around a mountain and avoid the Gloomwood, I will roll 3 checks per day, usually by designating three different colored dice as “morning”, “afternoon”, and “night” and rolling them all together.

So in our last session the party was attempting to circle round the mountain to find an old cave they knew contained a magical scrying pool (similar effect to a crystal ball) which they wished to use to their advantage.  Right off the bat they both got lost and hit an encounter.  I ruled this as them drifting too far south and accidentally entering the Gloomwood, where they were set upon by werewolves.  The next day the same result, lost and one encounter.  This time they overshot the mountain and ended up in the Dead Hills, a place where many ancient battles were once held that is now quite haunted.  The encounter came at night, so the party managed to witness a battle between two forces of undead which they cleverly avoided, though at the cost of losing all the benefits of a good night’s rest (no healing, no spells regained).  On the third day they climbed the mountain where they were set upon by Caecilia (giant gray worms) in a set encounter I had placed there before we even started playing.  They managed to get into the cave, use the scrying pool, and get out in time to make camp just at the tree line below the cave.  Wouldn’t you know it, another random encounter roll released two fire salamanders on them in the middle of the night (did I mention the cave is on the side of a  volcano?)  The party managed to fight them off, and the next day returned to their camp at the base of the mountain, which had been overtaken by an entire tribe of orcs (yup, another random encounter).  Being fairly high level, they managed to kill off the orcs and charm the chieftain, and so ended a full night of adventuring.

And honestly, I think we were all having a great time.  The wandering monster and lost rolls all made sense.  I did re-roll a couple times for the specific monster type when I got stuff that was just crazy, but I never fudged the chances of it happening.  I did not randomize the lost rolls because in both cases the monster type pushed me in a specific direction.  Werewolves?  They must have gone too far south and entered the Gloomwood.  Undead?  Clearly they’ve accidentally entered the Dead Hills.

So, clearly random encounter rolls can actually build some really exciting play.  Unfortunately, sometimes it also leads to tedious play, especially when it’s getting in the way of something exciting that everyone is looking forward to.  Any consistent rule here is simply too rigid to be followed dogmatically.  The DM simply must keep his thumb on the pulse of the table, and adjust the pacing as he sees fit.  While I fight the urge to fudge dice, and actually roll all my combat rolls in front of the screen to avoid the temptation, in the case of wandering monster checks I think it’s imperative that the DM feel a strong latitude to roll or ignore the rolls as he sees fit.

This, I think, is what Gygax was getting at when he described his own DMing style as “free-wheeling.”


Once again I missed GenCon this year, and it has left me feeling conflicted.  The 50th anniversary is coming very soon, and given that my very first GenCon was the 25th (still have the pin), I feel like I really want to be at the 50th.  That said, GenCon aint what it used to be.  And it’s not just me being old and grumpy.  I noticed some interesting reactions appear on Facebook after the convention:

“this convention is starting to feel like it did back in the days when it was in Milwaukee, when the only way to get a room near the convention center was to know someone with one of the big publishing houses or game vendors”

GenCon: The Worst Best Four Days of Gaming

“GenCon is just too damned big. …  If not for my involvement in the Auction, I would not attend any more.”

How Big is Too Big? Gaming Cons Today

As I continue to miss GenCon (for all meanings of the word miss), I have also started attending more smaller conventions.  Last year I attended Carnage on the Mountain for the first time, and their organization has impressed me so much I had to attend again this year.  Never mind that I get to see some folks in the past I have only seen at TotalCon (entirely my own fault as I regularly fail to show up to other scheduled gatherings), the fact is that the organizers of Carnage are both gracious and on the ball.  I was politely asked over email if I was going to sign up for games, and when I did, I was again politely asked if I wouldn’t mind if one of my games was run in its backup time slot instead of its primary one as the backup time slot had fewer games.  Geez, I fully expected that if they wanted to bump me they’d just bump me.  Isn’t that why I enter a backup time slot?  The extra care makes even a regular old DM like me feel like a special guest.  It’s fantastic.

So now Jenn and I are considering next year attending Origins instead of GenCon.  In the past I’ve heard good things about Origins, but it’s just as far away as GenCon, so if I was going to a big con why not go to the biggest?  The thing is, the biggest has now become too big.  The frustration of trying to snag a hotel in the 1 hour window when they’re available, getting into barely any of the games I want, having to schlep several blocks from one building to the next to get to games… it’s just not worth it.

As we’ve investigated Origins I’ve come to find some very heartening facts.  Attendance last year was around 16k, which is still freaking enormous, but nowhere near GenCon’s 61k.  Interestingly, my first GenCon in 92 had an attendance of 18k, which felt enormous at the time.  From what I hear online, the most popular hotel sells out in about a month, and many hotels that are right next to the convention center will still have rooms available up to the last minute.  This is quite a change from GenCon’s 1 hour scramble for housing six months before the show.

But still, it’s GenCon…  Do I really want to miss the 50th?

A few weeks ago I was grumbling about GenCon at an after-work gathering,  and starting to sound like a grumpy old muppet.  I wast trying to make the point that GenCon just didn’t feel like it was about the gaming anymore.  Our recently graduated intern said “Oh, I didn’t even realize GenCon was a gaming convention, I thought it was an anime thing.”  This is a video game company intern we’re talking about here people, not some uninformed person off the street.  She’s well versed in all things geek, and honestly, if I wanted to go to an anime convention, she may be the first person I would ask for recommendations.  And she didn’t even know GenCon was a gaming convention?

So there’s my proof I think — GenCon simply isn’t the convention it used to be.  It’s not a gaming convention any more.  Nor is it an anime convention — it’s a new stuff convention.  It’s a let’s wrap up every single thing geek culture is somewhat interested in and put a price tag on it convention.  The GenCon I miss just doesn’t exist anymore.

Geez, I feel like a widow trying to convince myself it’s time to date again.  Sigh.  OK Origins, let’s see what you have to offer.

TotalCon 2015

Hello my sad neglected blog, it’s been a while.  And TotalCon is now many weeks ago, but I thought it might be worth recounting my experiences, hazy though the memories may be.

TotalCon snuck up on me this year, I think perhaps Carnage on the Mountain threw my schedule off a bit.  I’m used to a longer gap between convention seasons, and thus I barely made it in time for registration.  I somehow missed GM registration, so this year I was just a player.  Actually that was a nice recharge of my creative energy, as I came away with new ideas of things I’d like to run, while before hand I was starting to slag a bit.

So, let’s see, what did I play?  I played two games of Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics, not entirely on purpose.  I signed up for them because they were run by Michael Curtis, who is a great DM, and I’m happy to play in whatever he’s excited to run.  Actually, I dismissed DCC when I first heard of it.  What do I need with another quazi-D&D game, when I have my beloved original?  And the funny dice just felt too gimmicky to me.  Actually, both games were really enjoyable, and I actually find some of the quirks of DCC rather endearing, and am going to run a game of it myself at the coming HelgaCon.  Perhaps I’ll save writing too much analysis about DCC here, as it could easily take over the whole post.  Maybe saving that in my back pocket will encourage me to come back and write another blog entry in the near future.

Oh, and one of those games was like a bizarre-o reunion from last year.  Last year, there I am sitting with these two guys Mark and David playing a Labyrinth Lord game run by Michael Curtis, and David is going on about the wonders of his space pen.  Michael goads David on and much good natured ribbing ensues.  This year, I sat down to my first game with Michael and he asks me if I’ve seen David?  No, I haven’t but it’s only Friday, and I seem to recall those guys only come down Saturday and Sunday.  Michael then shows me his new space pen, hand-delivered to him at Gary Con as a gift from David, couriered by a mutual friend.  Hilarious.  On Saturday, I sit down to my second DCC game with Michael, and who is at the table?  Yup, Mark and David.  Somewhere out there, perhaps on Facebook, is a picture of Michael and David holding their space pens under their noses like weirdo high tech Hitler mustaches.  I’m thrilled to have gotten to see pretty much the whole story unwind before me.

OK, what else did I play?  I played a fantastic game of Call of Cthulhu with the very skilled GM Scott Legault.  I’ve been trying to play in one of his games for a couple conventions now, and was glad to finally get the chance.  Actually, I also played in a steampunk themed game he ran, but the CoC was the gem.  My character ended the game with a twisted ankle, a broken leg, the bubonic plague, and severe agoraphobia.  All in all, a pretty perfect game of Cthulhu.

I also ended up playing a massive game of Car Wars, again totally unplanned.  The Swords and Wizardry game I was going to play failed to pull enough players, so I found myself at a loose end.  I wandered into the board game section where I peered curiously at the massive Car Wars game and quickly found myself behind the wheel of “Vlad the Impala” and Scott barreling down on my gunner.  Yes, that is the same Scott who gave me agoraphobia, do you think maybe he’s got it in for me?

So despite the failure to register any games to run and despite the horrible parking situation (next year I plan to never leave the hotel for meals), I had a fantastic time.  Someone said that TotalCon is like Cheers.  You barely remember any of these people all year, but then you show up at the Holiday Inn and everyone greets you like age old friends.  We play games, we drink, we play more games, and it’s just four solid days of fun with some really interesting people.

So that was my TotalCon.  I’m already looking forward to next year.  But in the meantime, there’s HelgaCon to prepare for.

Swimming in B/X

Robert Fisher has kindly pointed out what I missed.  The following section appears in the Expert book, page X51:

SWIMMING: All characters may swim unless the DM decides otherwise.  Movement rate while swimming is 1/2 normal.  The DM will want to decide on the chance of a character drowning when swimming in rough water, swimming while carrying heavy or encumbering equipment or treasure, swimming while wearing heavy armor, or while fighting in the water.  The chance of drowning will be largely dependent on the circumstances.  For example, a fighter trying to swim in rough choppy seas while wearing plate armor and carrying 3000 cn of treasure might have a 99% chance of drowning.  The same fighter in leather armor and not carrying treasure might have only a 10% chance of drowning.  When fighting in the water or underwater, it should be harder to hit opponents, and damage done from successful attacks should be reduced.  Missile weapons will not normally work while fighting in the water.

Um, thanks Mr. Cook?  It’s so overwhelmingly hand-wavey, I almost wonder why he even bothered.  Yes, I agree, I will want to decide on the chance of a character drowning.  That’s why I’m reading this text.  Sigh.

Swimming, or Not Drowning, Through the Ages

Here’s an illustration made by my players at a recent game that has inspired me to revisit my sadly ignored blog:


The predicament my players found themselves in was the need to cross a large underground lake, and it seems someone had stolen their raft.  They left a lot of treasure on the other side of that lake, but also were worried there may still be some enemies, so what’s a party of 4-5th level characters to do?

Working from left to right, it begins with the thief, who had invisibility cast on him and felt confident in his swimming skills.  Naturally though in D&D no character is ever allowed by his party to endanger himself without a rope firmly fastened around him.  At the end of this rope we have the party’s first magic user, who has cast levitation on himself.  He’s pictured here reclining on his back with his arms behind his head.

Furthermore, magic-user #1 has cast floating disc, upon which sits magic-user #2.  Not to be out-done by his wizardly compatriot, magic-user #2 has also cast floating disc, and upon that disc sits the fighter, fishing pole deployed.  Naturally, though much game time was spent formulating and illustrating the above amidst whoops of laughter, this one did not make it past planning stages.  Not in this form anyway, though the thief and the levitating mage were still involved at the end.

Besides being an awesome image that deserved to be posted here for posterity, this has got me thinking about swimming in D&D.  In the past I’ve taken a pretty hard line about swimming with any gear heavier than a knife.  It’s generally known at my table that swimming in armor is a sure-fire way to end up dead very quickly, but in this case the thief really wanted to try it with his leather armor on.  I guess he was concerned that the benefit of invisibility may be moot due to water displacement.

Anyway, I had him make some rolls, and there was a tense moment when he ended up winded and the levitating mage had to lift him up and let him rest for several minutes, but he made it across and I wasn’t very satisfied.  I was making rulings off the cuff because nobody has ever really pressed me on this one, and in retrospect I think it should have been harder.  So here I am with my books at hand and the following questions to answer:

  1. How frequently should checks be made when in the water to prevent drowning?
  2. Related to the previous, how far can a character swim in this duration?
  3. What penalties should be applied for armor, clothing, and any other equipment carried?

I decided to first look at 3e, since that is so readily available and searchable online:

Make a Swim check once per round while you are in the water. Success means you may swim at up to one-half your speed (as a full-round action) or at one-quarter your speed (as a move action). If you fail by 4 or less, you make no progress through the water. If you fail by 5 or more, you go underwater.  Double the normal armor check penalty is applied to Swim checks.

Note that armor check penalties for common armor types is -6 for plate, -5 for chain, and 0 for leather. Double that for swimming and you get -12 / -10 / 0.  Interestingly this is from the 3.5 srd, and it’s been pointed out to me that this differs from the 3.0 text which states “Instead of an armor check penalty, the character suffers a penalty of –1 for each 5 pounds of gear the character is carrying or wearing.”  In 3.0 that would equate to -10 / -8 / -3 for swimming in plate, chain, or leather respectively.

Note even with all the above text we’ve still only answered question 2 and half of question 1.  For the actual rules on drowning we must see the DMG:

Any character can hold her breath for a number of rounds equal to twice her Constitution score. After this period of time, the character must make a DC 10 Constitution check every round in order to continue holding her breath. Each round, the DC increases by 1. See also: Swim skill description.

When the character finally fails her Constitution check, she begins to drown. In the first round, she falls unconscious (0 hp). In the following round, she drops to -1 hit points and is dying. In the third round, she drowns.

I was about to complain about how complex this is, but then again, this is 3rd edition we’re talking about. At least it’s easier than grappling.

OK, let’s go back further.  The 1st edition AD&D DMG has this to say:

Swimming will be impossible in any type of metal armor with the exception of magic armor.  Any character wearing magic armor will be encumbered and the only stroke possible will be the dog paddle.  It is possible to swim in leather and padded armor, but it is awkward and there is a 5% chance of drowning per hour.  All heavy possessions must be discarded or the chance of drowning increases by 2% for every 5 pounds on the character’s person other than his or her leather or padded armor.  This includes weapons, purses filled with gold and/or gems, backpacks and hard boots.  One unsheathed dagger may be carried by the adventurer between his or her teeth.

… movement (either swimming or walking) is the same as the speeds used in dungeons, even though underwater movement is “outdoors”.  Average movement is a function of encumbrance in exactly the same ratios as in dungeon movement.

This must be the origin of special-casing leather armor.  Though even then you’re still looking at a 5% chance of death every hour.  Still, not much here on how long a character could keep it up.  Also in general I see that 3.0 actually appears to be more restrictive than 1e.  Half move instead of normal move, and 5% difficulty increases per 5 pounds rather than 2%.  The only point that 1e takes a harder line is the absolute restriction over swimming in metal armor, while I’m pretty sure a clever min-maxer could figure out how to make it work in 3.0.

OK, let’s look at what my personal rules edition of choice uses, B/X.  Um, it’s here somewhere, I think?  No?  Seriously, can anyone find it?  As far as I can tell, there is not a single word about swimming nor drowning in the B/X rules.  There’s a section on boats and naval combat, but nothing here about swimming or drowning.  Huh.

Fine, let’s skip further back and see what OD&D has to say.  Here we are in Volume 3:

Men in armor have a chance of drowning.  Those in metallic armor must shed their armor or be drowned.

Armor Type Chance of Drowning Must Remove?
Plate 100%
Chain-type 80% yes
Leather 20% no
None 05%*

Note that in gale and storm conditions there is a 50% chance that any man in the water will drown.  Roll for this possibility each turn.

*only if thrown overboard

Swimming speed is 3″ per turn. … Only daggers or wooden weapons which are buoyant can be carried when swimming.  Buoyant weapons: wooden club, quarter staff, spear.

Love that chart, don’t you?  This section comes under the naval combat, and you can see I’ve trimmed some text out that’s specific about being rescued from a boat.

So OD&D has gone really restrictive in the movement area, basically movement for any swimmer is at the slowest rate in the game.  The armor restrictions are similar to 1e, though OD&D does seem to allow for a chain-wearing character to shed their armor and survive.

When I first started writing this post I was hoping to cap it off with a nice chart showing the answers to my 3 questions above for each edition and major armor type.  The problem is that they vary so widely, from the 3.0 idea of figuring out what sate you are in (swimming, holding breath, or drowning), then adding in skill checks and DCs based on conditions, etc. to full plate in AD&D, which seems to me to be just “you drown”.  It’s very hard to find common axes for comparison.

Ultimately, I guess I’ll just have to find a system I like or invent my own.  As of right now, I most like OD&D’s version.  The text is simple and concise, and the chances seem about as deadly as I’d like them.  Maybe it’s a little too heavy handed against plate wearers, as I wouldn’t mind if someone in plate falling into a shallow pool still had enough time to struggle out of their armor and survive (especially if helpers are at hand).  I imagine the 100% chance is really assuming the poor guy fell out of a boat in the middle of the ocean, given the context and presence of footnote about being thrown overboard without armor.

Anyway, I think I will mull this one over more.  It is not quite as straight forward as I was expecting when I started writing this.


On a recent long car ride Jenn and I were discussing the fact that demand for physical toys have been in decline recently.  It would seem that in this digital age all the kids want is an iPad stocked full of video games, which as a video game developer is good news for me, but overall makes me kind of sad.  Many articles on this focus on the interactivity of video games over the static experience of re-enacting movie scenes with a licensed action figure.  Personally, I’d like to point out the problem of forcing everything to spawn from proven licensed material.  You’ll never really engage a child’s imagination with such a restrictive point of view.  Case in point, from my own childhood, consider the MUSCLE Men:


When I was a kid there were plenty of licensed action figure toys out there: GI Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, He-Man, Mad Balls, etc. But I very vividly remember the day my mom set me loose at a local flea market and I discovered a huge gallon zip-lock bag of MUSCLE Men for just a couple dollars. I’m sure the awesome value of getting hundreds of little guys for such a cheap price was a big part of why I bought them – I was never good at saving and thus rarely had much money to spend on bigger ticket items. But when I brought those little pink guys home I played with them quite a bit, imagining all kinds of crazy stories and backgrounds for them.

The thing with this toy is, you had to invent your own story, because there just wasn’t a pre-pacakge one supplied. Maybe if I dug I might find one, but at least Wikipedia tells me that only 2 of the original 236 figures even had names. And of course I didn’t even have the original packaging, I just had that one gallon ziplock bag.

With GI Joe or He-Man it was pretty well laid out who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. The TV shows, which were little more than toy commercials, gave all kinds of characteristics and stories for the figures. But these little pink men were just all over the map. One guy had a shark head, another had six arms, many vaguely resembled wrestlers, but many were just completely bizarre, and all of them were the same shade of eraser pink.

I wanted them grouped into teams, so I had to invent the teams. I wanted the teams to fight, so I had to invent why they didn’t like each other. There were so many of them I couldn’t just make two factions, there were easily a dozen factions. And when I put them away they all went back into that one big bag so the sorting and deciding “does the six armed guy with a helmet go in the weird limbs group or the wearing armor group” re-occurred over and over again.

Maybe I’m just showing myself as the crotetchedy old man I’ve become, but it seems to me that toys are in the decline because toys today suck. Kids have crazy inventive and bizarre imaginations, and their toys should engage that and let them exercise it. Sure, making an exact replica of the latest cartoon movie character will sell plenty of units, but will the kids play with it over and over again, or will they forget all about it once the next animated blockbuster comes out? I say, give them some weird little men with too many limbs and bombs for hands, and they’ll be entertained for weeks.

Old GenCon Photos


And for a little more GenCons past nostalgia, here are a couple photos.

GenCon '97 - Look how excited I am to be working the exhibit hall, and rocking my GenCon '93 shirt!

Picture 1 of 2

GenCon '97 - Look how excited I am to be working the exhibit hall, and rocking my GenCon '93 shirt!

GenCon Past and Future

For unknown reasons I find myself again contemplating GenCon.  We missed it again this year — partly because we’re going to have some work done and are strapped for cash for vacations, but also because GenCon has become something of a mess recently.  It appears to be tied up in the geek culture explosion, with record attendance around 56,000.  I’ve read some interesting articles about how everything geek culture is exploding and merging.  For example, can you imagine any convention, be it comic, video game, or board game targeted, without a large amount of cosplay?  GenCon without storm troopers parading down the hall sounds crazy, but back in the 90’s, I’m not even sure if I remember there being a costume contest.

Unfortunately the downside to all this growth is that it’s getting very hard for an individual to go, never mind organize a handful of friends.  Hotels fill up within hours of registration opening up, and the booking sites are just an exercise in frustrating web timeouts.  I have at least one friend who intended to go this year but was simply unable to book a hotel room and so ended up having to stay home.  Certainly the vast attendance numbers is part of the over the top splendor of going to one of these things, but it seems to have reached that tipping point of just being too darn big.

Looking ahead, in 2017 it will be the 50th anniversary of GenCon.  Given that my very first GenCon was the 25th anniversary (1992), I really want to attend that one.  I imagine that one will be particularly insane, unless somehow this bubble bursts before then.  It may be wise to go to one or two before then just to figure out how to work the logistics, but one or two more is all that are left before it happens, and frankly next year is looking pretty doubtful with Jenn planning us a trip to England.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to write this post was to once again collate my notes and remind myself which GenCons I have been to, and which I missed.  This is really only for my own future reference, so I apologize to any other readers, but here it is, the GenCon roll: (note, early pre-blog dates will link back to the same original recap post I first wrote about my earl GenCon attendance)

1992 – My first GenCon, a Christmas present from dear old dad.  To this day I can’t believe he actually did this for me.  Also, GenCon’s 25th anniversary.

1993 – My second GenCon, and the first we drove to, or should I say, my friend Chris’s mom drove us.  Also the year Magic the Gathering came out.

1994 – The only GenCon I ever attended entirely alone, and at a time when I was really too young to do so.  I would miss the next year as I got ready for college and said goodbye to high school.

1996 – Once in college I rarely came home for the summers, instead preferring to work on campus.  My friend Lam did likewise, and thus he and I would attend GenCon together for a few years running.  This year we had a really great time, flying out of NY together and catching the CCG bug with L5R.

1997 – A bad year for GenCons – the year Lam and I drove a truck full of miniatures out, got stuck working the exhibition hall, and saw the seedy underbelly of professional convention attendance.  I vowed I would always attend in the future as nothing more than a consumer.  Also, the year WotC bought TSR, and the last year I’d attend at Milwaukee.

Here follows a gap of not attending.  I tried to go in 1998 but Lam didn’t or couldn’t go, but then ended up going last minute without me.  I’ve always been kind of annoyed by that.  Then I graduated college and either didn’t have the time, money, or interest to go.

2004 – Though I started playing with a group of co-workers in 1999, it wasn’t until 2004 that for some reason we decided we should all go to GenCon together.  We rented a van and drove out there.  This is probably the last serious road trip with a bunch of friends I would take, and I think it was also my favorite.  Also, I think this was the only one I attended with Dan.

2005 – The first year I blogged about going to GenCon, so plenty of details and photos in this link.  This is the only year I attended with Scott.  It’s kind of sad that I never got to go to GenCon with both Scott and Dan at the same time.

2006 – Now we are starting to get into a groove of going with Joe, BJ, and Adam.  They’ve been doing this with us since 2004 and it’s solidified as a tradition.  Adam always vanishes into the depths of serious competitive Call of Cthulhu, but Joe, BJ, and I play a fair amount of organized D&D 3/3.5 together.

2007 – The year E3 crashed and video games started to appear in force at GenCon.  I believe this is also the year I started seriously getting into Savaged Worlds and thus ran my first game at GenCon.  Also the year they announced D&D 4th edition.  There are some amusing photos out there of me, Joe, and BJ reacting to this announcement, but I don’t seem to have any because my camera was on the fritz.  Also, this is the last year I’d attend a GenCon while Gary Gygax was alive and present.  I wish I had made a point of meeting the guy during one of these, but sadly I never did.

2008 – Not a tone of great photos from this one sadly, as I replaced my camera with a big heavy SLR that was too painful to use at a convention.  At this point I’m pretty heavily into Savage Worlds, which I think actually started the year before.  Still going with Joe, BJ, and Adam (and of course as always Jenn), but we’re starting to lose steam and won’t attend the next year, though many of us will regret that choice.

2010 – By this year we have a whole new group of friends to go.  Adam is still going, but as always we barely see the guy, and new friends from 38 including Mike join us this year.  Also I’m now in the throws of old school D&D, running Labyrinth Lord games.  This is also the year I discover the Auction, which will quickly evolve from a side interest to a major event I will schedule the rest of my convention around.

2011 – John from 38 joins the band, and I continue to immerse myself in the old school.  This is also the year the size of the convention starts to show, and the scheduling system is very difficult to deal with.  Still, I manage to play in some great games, and the OSR is in full bloom.  I also spent a huge amount of time and money in the auction for the first time.

2012 – Adam and Mike join us again, and this time my family including two younger brothers, my mom, and stepfather all make it down (though only my brothers attend the convention, my family parents find other entertainment).  This is also the year we miss Sunday due to inconvenient flight times.

And that’s basically it.  We had flights and tickets for GenCon 2013, but ended up moving in August and had to cancel our plans.  Then in 2014 we didn’t even try to attend, and thank goodness, because it sounds like it would have been extremely difficult.  I hope this is not the end of my history with GenCon, but clearly careful planning will be required for the future.  In the meantime, I continue to expand the local conventions I check out, and this November I’ll be attending Carnage on the Mountain in VT.


PostScript – I just realized at some point I set up a category on this blog for posts about GenCon, which can all be gotten to here.

Dwimmermount: TL;DR

The following assumes you know the whole back-story of the disappearance of James Maliszewski and his blog Grognardia a couple of years ago. If not, here’s a couple links for you. And in the spirit of the title of this entry, the tldr is this: James wrote a very successful blog recounting his experiences going back to original D&D. He started a kickstarter to publish his home campaign setting, and then vanished suddenly when his father became very ill, and hasn’t posted a word online since. While others picked up the kickstarter responsibilities, many were quite upset about the whole thing, while others had some empathy for a man having an obviously tough time with grief.

OK, so I backed that kickstarter when it first launched. In early 2012 I also had a little personal upheaval to deal with, and as such wasn’t paying much attention to James or his blog. There were offers on the kickstarter to refund my money, but I let it ride. It wasn’t a lot of money and I had already kind of forgotten about it. I figured it was worth the risk that maybe James would return or these other guys would put something interesting together. And then last week, this arrived in the mail:

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Man, I was not expecting such a massive book. Seriously, this thing weighs a ton, and clocks in at over 400 pages. It took me a couple days just to get up the gumption to try and read the thing. I started out skimming and popping around trying to find specific bits of interest. Finally, I picked it up for my pre-bed time reading last night and started in at chapter 1. That first chapter turns out to be an incredibly interesting read. While just the introduction, it includes James’ original intro describing his personal goals, and then a larger chunk from the publisher talking about what problems James had with the project and how they went about solving those problems once James had left.

Let’s begin with James’ own motivations. He was pretty enamored of the idea of a mega-dungeon for some time, and wrote about such frequently on his blog:

There’s never really been a properly presented old school campaign setting, because none that I know of have ever given us the megadungeons around which they revolved. It seems to me that, if I were an old school publisher looking for a “killer app,” it’d be a well-done megadungeon and surrounding wilderness, done in a way that fosters sandbox/hexcrawl play.

I think the quote above outlines not only his original dream, but also what eventually becomes the albatross of the project for him. The introduction to Dwimmermount puts it this way:

As identified by James, the fundamental difficulty in publishing a megadungeon is that it changes over time in response to play.

The final problem James identified for a published dungeon is that the amount of detail which accumulates through the history of play can be overwhelming to the referee. Freedom from extensive preparation was one of the key advantages James found in refereeing Dwimmermount, because at the beginning of the campaign there was little prepared material demanding to be studied before each session. By the end of James’ campaign, a wealth of detail had piled up – but much of it did not make it into the first drafts of Dwimmermount. James’ drafts were purposefully minimalist, so as to avoid burdening the referee with an abundance of material to master, leaving each referee space for individual creativity to make the dungeon his own.

Whether or not you agree that megadungeons are instrumental to recreating old school play, I think the above issues ring true for adapting any home campaign setting into published material. I remember throughout my young gaming life (all the way up to and including college play), I always envied GMs who had long spanning home campaigns rich with history and content. When I started my own old school campaign back in January of 2010, this is exactly what I was setting out to create — my own long living campaign world that would grow organically over time. I think I was pretty successful at doing just that, but would I try now to package that all up into a published work and sell it to the public? Certainly not.

The fact is, you can’t package the magic of the shared history among DM and players. You can package up all the output of this communal creative process, but expecting an outsider to be able to pick that up and have the same experiences you did is laughable. And yet, it seems that’s exactly what is being attempted here:

We have added in much of the detail that James left out, attempting to stay true to James’ intent or written notes while resolving inconsistencies between sections of the text written at different times and filling in gaps where his drafts referred to details not provided. As a result, the final material we have published is considerably more detailed than the first drafts. We think this ultimately makes Dwimmermount a better product, and hope that you agree. For some referees, experts in improvisation and megadungeon creation, the additional material we have added will be unnecessary and possibly even distracting; but we feel that erring on the side of more content rather than less is ultimately better for everyone. In play, it is much easier to ignore unwanted material than to manufacture details from whole cloth, and a majority of backers we interacted with preferred to be able to run the dungeon “out of the box” without being required to add their own material.

A product that is “better for everyone” at the expense of “experts in improvisation” who will find much of the work “unnecessary and possibly even distracting.” This sounds an awful lot like the exact progression of D&D, a gradual removal of reliance on expert GMs able to improvise, and a leveling of the playing field to give everyone a standard experience, even if that standard had become somewhat drab as a result.

I will still attempt to make it through the 400 pages and find the hidden gems for extraction into my own campaign. I’m sure they are in there, and it’s just a question if I can make it through all the verbosity to find them. For my own money though, I kind of wish the book had been closer to James’ original draft, or perhaps something more like Michael Curtis’ Stonehell. Give me loose notes that inspire my imagination and leave plenty of room for interpretation, not pages upon pages of minutiae.

I tore through Stonehell and dropped that sucker right into my campaign world. My players know of its existence, and some love it, and many more avoid it like the plague. It is full of mystery and danger in their eyes – just what a massive dungeon should be. Is it the central tent-pole of my campaign? No. Does it provide plenty of hooks for adventure and exciting play? Absolutely.

A New Old Campaign

For some time now some of my co-workers have been asking me to start up a new D&D campaign.  The main force behind this is actually a guy who was in my previous campaign, but there did seem to be a general desire around the office to play.  Seriously that’s one of the big advantages of working in video games — I have yet to work anywhere that didn’t have enough people interested in playing D&D to actually start a group.  This one was a bit surprising though.  Out of the 20 or so employees in the office, 9 players have asked to be part of the campaign.  I imagine one or two may start to flake out as it goes on, but our first session is scheduled for this Wednesday and as far as I know all 9 players will be there.

The campaign location will be the same world I’ve been running since my blog reset back in 2010.  My goal at the time was to start a campaign world that I could continually run stuff in that would eventually become deep and full of content simply by virtue of playing in it for so long.  I had heard stories of guys running the same world for decades, and I was jealous.  Well, it’s actually is working.  I have a huge hex map of the known part of the world and tons of adventure leads to start this new campaign out.  I’m pretty excited actually.

The group is an interesting melange of newbies and old hats.  As I said, one of the guys has been playing in my campaigns for years and I sort of think of him as the backbone of the group.  Or at least the cheerleader.  Certainly he’ll be the one to lead between-game conversations and keep the energy up, and frankly, I’m super grateful to have a player like that.  That kind of player can really make the difference between a game that trudges on and one that everyone is really excited to play every week.

Then I have at least one guy who has never played any version of D&D before.  This is a guy that will have trouble telling a d8 from a d10.  I like this kind of player just as much, because newbies have a great way of not letting themselves be bound by the rules.  They are far more likely to try something crazy that makes me scramble to make up rules on the spot and inevitably leads to a really awesome and memorable scene.  I do, however, have trouble answering him when he asks the simple question “What edition are we playing?”  I’m so steeped in the history now that I find it difficult to answer that question without going on for half an hour about the history of the game.

The funny thing is, I’m almost tempted to start calling what I play “OD&D”.  The fact is, I use the B/X books, but the majority of my house rules are focused on adding OD&D and AD&D 1e style stuff (race/class split, multi-classing, spell progression, etc.)  When I compare how I run the game to how others run OD&D, I’d say my game is more OD&D like than Basic D&D like.  And there’s something really nice about being able to answer the above question as simply “We play the original edition.  You know, the first one ever made.”  Most neophyte players understand numbers, and have a vague impression that there’s a 1st edition, 2nd edition, etc.  Trying to explain this weird non-numbered branch of the game that existed in the 80’s is a bit cumbersome.

However, the books I have at the table are undeniably the B/X books.  I have one set for my own use behind the screen, and one on the table for the players.  The fact is, I find the language and the organization of these books much more usable at the table than the LBBs.  While the spirit of what I play may be infused by ideas in the LBBs, I think the B/X books are just far more functional as reference material mid-session.

Anyway, I seem to have wandered pretty far off course here.  The point is, I have a new campaign starting up, using the same good old world and system I was using back in the halcyon days of 38.  I’m pretty darn excited, and I expect it will lead to a bunch more posting at this site again.