Tuesday, November 11, 2014

My Gamehole Con II Experience (part 2)

This is a record for myself, principally.  However, if this write-up serves as some kind of ward or guide for you, dear reader, then more power to you.

Remember the first scene of the 1960 film The Time Machine, when the narrator bursts through the door, bedraggled and out of breath, anxious to tell his story before he starts to forget all the little details?  Well, I felt a little bit like that on Saturday night, except I knew that something important would be lost in a midnight summary after the wife and kids were in bed:  perspective.

Now, where to begin?  My Saturday afternoon session of The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence was the first time running the campaign setting / adventure / hex-crawl since the book was published.  Before that, it was all notes and a collective framework of ideas built upon prior playtest sessions.  Maybe having all of it in front of me, at my fingertips made me cocky.  Or perhaps it was my over-reliance on a randomized narrative via rolling the dice...

Months ago, I decided to run one game and one game only due to my first Gamehole Con experience - a disturbing lack of players on Friday and Saturday's Liberation of the Demon Slayer games; a meager one and two players, respectively.  I thought if spreading myself too thin wasn't working that a single game would be the ticket.  Of course, I wanted to maximize that solitary session.  So, I decided on six hours.  Six hours!  Adding fuel to the fire, I allowed eight players just in case there were a couple no-shows. In hindsight, WTF was I thinking?

I originally set the game up using Swords & Wizardry.  A month or so later I decided that S&W just wasn't right or wasn't enough.  Caught up with the buzz-stream of summer gaming and the promise of Starter Sets, I changed the system to 5th edition D&D.  My thought process was most likely two-fold.  1) I was still thinking about those empty Liberation sessions which used either S&W or DCC (can't remember which - I assumed it was the former, but +Doug Kovacs recalled the latter).  Certainly, a more popular system would get more people sitting at my table.  2) Just before the 5e Player's Handbook came out, there was lots of talk about the OSR and how influential it had been on D&D Next.  I thought, why not something like S&W, except full color, a bit more rules, options, and choices, flashier, along with advantage/disadvantage and inspiration?

Since holding the Player's Handbook and Monster Manual in my hands and seeing excerpts from the upcoming DMG, I began to regret my decision.  It's not that 5e isn't a great game or couldn't be used for OSRish type sessions, it just wasn't ideal considering my tastes, preferences, and aesthetics.  Alas, it was too late.  People had already signed up.  5e it would have to be.

Anyways, the game itself started alright.  I was a performer.  Part GM, part comedian.  The laughter was welcome and kept me from totally freaking out when the game stalled or took a wrong turn.

For some reason, I assumed the table would contain a couple gamers from my small, tiny, tiny, minuscule sliver of a following.  After all, in my head I'm a big fucking deal.  A celebrity amongst the RPG elite.  Yeah, silly beyond belief.  Still, there it was deep in my megalomaniacal psyche.  Somewhere out there in the unquiet void, Nyarlathotep is laughing.

After introducing myself and exchanging pleasantries with almost everyone who came to sit at my table, I proudly held up the book and asked if anyone owned Purple.  Nope.  Anyone heard of Purple, read reviews or actual play reports?  Nope.  How about Liberation?  Nope.  Anyone read my blog or have any idea who I am?  Nope.

Wow, that was sobering.  Let me post-preface this by saying that just walking around the convention the night before I ran into several people from last year's Gamehole Con, GaryCon, someone who had backed my last kickstarter, one of the artists I'm currently working with for Revelry in Torth, and an old friend I used to game with a decade ago.  That kind of buoyed my false sense of super-stardom.  As Thomas Ligotti once said, "There's no obscurity like minor renown."

Regardless, I proceeded.  I asked them about their expectations for this session and got mostly blank stares in return.  I asked what they hoped to experience today?  One mentioned riding an undead T-Rex in some kind of He-Man / Cthulhu Mythos game the night before.  I knew then tonight was going to be an uphill battle.  Another mentioned "secrets", like finding out hidden lore, mysteries and such.  A third answered something else, but I can't for the life of me remember what he said.  Never mind, I actually wrote it down:  fighting something ginormous and planar travel.  Oh yeah, I just remembered +Glenn Holmer wanted to familiarize himself with 5th edition.

I have no idea where I came up with this idea, but I asked around the table for their favorite scifi, fantasy, or horror movie from the 80's.  I like to include a fair amount of improv in my GMing.  Certainly with five hours of wandering through hexes (I budgeted an hour for character creation), there would be plenty of opportunity for throwing in some geek-culture references.

Pleasantly surprised, I received the following:  John Carpenter's The Thing, Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, Time Bandits, Monty Python's Holy Grail, and the Dark Crystal.  I wrote these down so I could remember them for later.

Then I went into character creation.  Both Purple and Liberation have a lot of ideas for PC generation.  I've had extraordinary luck with them and so proceeded with full force.  Combining that with the strict rules of 5e and a noisy room full of gamers proved... interesting.  Long story short, I did some hand-waving, horse-trading, book-holding, rule-explaining, and hostage-negotiating.
Can 5e be run as both old school and new?  Yes, however, it's going to be really unbalanced in combat.  The party ranger was doing 14 and 16 points of damage each round while lesser optimized characters and/or 5e noobs were doing 3 and 5.

I had everyone make two 3rd level characters because, you know, PCs die.  Only one magic-user in the entire party.  Now, each time a spell is cast, the player has to roll a d6.  Something significant happens on rolls of 1, 3, and 6.  Well, about 10 spells were cast during that session and the player rolled a 2, 4, or 5 every single time!

I explained how inspiration worked.  What turned out to be one of my favorite parts of 5e in theory has really gummed up the works in practice.  Every "scene" there are so many little things, verbal and non-verbal cues, in and out of character words and gestures... how is a GM to judge what is inspiration-worthy and what isn't?  Should it highlight a character's background?  What about his reason for wandering towards a particular destination?  An in-character glance at another player's character?  Merely mentioning his character's flaw or weakness?  Speaking in character?  Doing something kick-ass that has nothing to do with roleplaying or backstory?  In the end, I just threw up my hands and gave everyone a free d20 re-roll in the form of a yellowish stone.

Speaking of stones, the islands are sentient (or can be if the GM chooses to go that route).  I randomly rolled (really, half the session seemed to be random rolls sending the session down rabbit holes of possibility.  I'm going to call this quantum-mastering the game... QMing instead of GMing.  Anyways, I rolled that the islands wanted to awaken the Great Old Ones.  Unfortunately, I rolled a 2 or 3 (if not a natural 1) on my meta-plot improvisation skill.  It never really came up again and no one even had a chance to receive a purple stone for acquiescing to the islands' dread agenda.

Swords!  I allowed each character to start the game with a magic item.  This seemed to be fun for some and a chore for others - I suppose it's a lot of pressure knowing that your decision might mean the difference between life and death.

Most players chose a sword +1.  Such weapons have intelligence and even personalities as per the rules in Purple.  These provided some interesting background hooks but, sadly, I only referenced each sword about one time throughout the entire session.

There was a magic sword that worshiped the Great Old Ones, a sword that used to be wielded by Alhazred, another that was compassionate, a sword that was both self-loathing and spoke in a foreign language, and lastly an amateur paleontologist who just wanted to dig up some dinosaur bones.  All I see now are missed opportunities, but c'est la vie.

Not sure why, but I decided to start everyone already on the islands instead of making their way to them like I usually do.  Each PC had been there for 1d8 weeks.  Before the game, when I was tracing all this stuff out in my head, I thought about rolling a percentile for each character versus their weeks of inhabitance x 10.  Sitting there trying to be heard by everyone as the next table shouted their battle cry, I trashed the fiddly bits and dove right in.

I allowed them to start wherever they wanted as I had Kinko's blow up an 18" x 24" full color map of the region.  Probably another mistake, as no one could decide just where to begin.  There were too many choices and nothing to go on besides variations of landscape and several interesting locales illustrated per island.

The giant purple worm I intended to frighten the PCs away from a burrowed hole ended up being public enemy number one.  They fought it even though I had no stats for it and kept fighting regardless of my mentioning its armored skin.  Then, they wanted to continue down that hole.  I had nothing planned for that, of course, but the party really wanted to explore underground.  The Overlords had a subterranean base, so I decided what the hell.  Eventually they found it.

It didn't take long before the party exterminated everyone in the underground base with a cache of futuristic weapons.  Storming the florescent-lit hallways, some noticed a surgeon trying to resuscitate a patient lying on a steel slab.  Those who chose to investigate witnessed the patient's chest cavity open up into jaws, chewing up the surgeon's hands, while the rest of the patient turned into some slimy, green abomination with spidery protrusions.  Indeed, a callback to The Thing.  There was a lot of welcome laughter from the players and they busied themselves with burning it all away.

Interesting footnote, I was able to get a post-game critique on the game from one of the players I found online.  Asking for feedback, he told me that while the Mythos and spaceship stuff wasn't really hit cup of tea, he enjoyed the session.  However, the inclusion of fav 80's movie cameos gave an unwelcome artificiality to the session.  While I couldn't help but agree with him (more hubris on my part, surely), I still think that scene was a highlight of the session.

After taking over the Overlord base, the party ventured back up to the surface.  I'll cut this short so this post stays under 10,000 words...

My favorite scene was encountering a settlement of Purple worshipers.  One PC, a female cleric, braved the trial.  I should have put more energy into beefing that up so it led to an adventure with an actual goal and stuff.  I assumed the rest of the islands' fauna and flora would bail me out.  Plus, there was a player with a tiefling warlock who seemed bound and determined to "be evil" for the sake of it, killing and stealing indiscriminately.  He snuck away from the party in order to infiltrate the settlement with a clever disguise.  Admirable but in the back of my mind I thought he might derail the entire session.  Ended up being nothing to worry about.  Oh well.  Even if it had, was it worth wasting precious focus on something that could lead to more crazy, high-pressured adventure?  Probably not.

The black pylon scene was cool.  I gave the interior a chance of being endless instead of just 20' x 20' as I originally planned.  Endless black it was.  Also reminiscent of Time Bandit (though I'm not sure that was in my mind at the time).  Half the party traveled to a derelict spaceship via portal.  One of the players had rolled a "connection with the islands" stating they were from another planet and were trying to get back. It fit perfectly, but then almost half the party were on their way to Alpha Centauri while the rest resigned themselves to exploring the rest of the island.

There was another sighting of the Purple Putrescence.  This might have been the fifth and final time of the session.  By now it was an overused crutch that seemed to lose its impact (for me, at least).  I didn't even use the book's cover or go into detail about what the godlike entity was doing.  It just showed up like a floating, purple, Lovecraftian Tarrasque on ambien.

The last 30 minutes devolved into the most bizarre encounter I've ever run.  Maybe I was inspired by last night's dream lands scenario or perhaps I painted myself into a surreal little corner, relying on little more than dice rolls to save the session from death by aburdism?

I won't go into details, but even if some players disliked parts (or all) of the adventure, there's a small chance that what transpired would leave them shaking their heads in disbelief for years to come.  So, I've got going for me... which is nice.
Thankfully, one player had the foresight to call it.  "This might be a good time to stop right here, some of us have 6 o'clock activities to get to and everything."  Indeed.  We ended at 5:45.  It was time to shake off the last remnants of - whatever that was - and go.

Getting up to leave, there were a few "Good game"s said in my general direction.  The player who rolled a natural 19 attempting to pilot the spaceship to Alpha Centuari told me that Purple reminded him of Ravenloft meets Carcosa meets... I can't remember what he said so I'll make up something suitable "B-movie Land of the Lost starring William Shatner."

Yeah, I didn't love my performance and wasn't thrilled with my presentation of Purple.  I couldn't control the loud, distracting convention atmosphere but there were things I could have done to make the game better: shorten the time frame to 4 hours (including pre-gens), a limit of 6 players max, and stick with a specifically OSR rule-set if I intend to run an OSRish session [though I'm still hoping the 5e DMG will allow me to use it more like 80's D&D.  That and have something planned that's more linear and less "anything goes" sandbox.... unless the world needs more sword & sorcery surrealism.

Quantum Mastering for the win!


p.s.  Part 1 is over here.

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