OK, get ready, this might be a long one. I want to talk about the games I got to play at TotalCon, and specifically to compare them to one another. Both games were run by Frank Mentzer, and I have to say that in both cases he did an admiral job. He’s a very good GM, quick on his feet, and very entertaining. When I bring up any criticisms, I hope they will be taken in the correct light and with the understanding that by and large I feel he is an excellent GM.
Frank mentioned more than once that the convention organizers always cap his games at 8 people, which he likes as it gives him the opportunity to “be the good guy” and allow several more to join in on the spot. Both games sat well more than 8 people, and Frank was always extremely gracious letting in those of us who held only generic tickets. The interesting thing about this is that like most convention games, it’s a huge gamble who ends up at the table. You’re just as likely to get a really great roleplayer whose thoroughly enjoyable to play with as you are to get someone that lacks basic social skills. With these numbers of players, we invariably had both at the table.
The first game I played in was a first edition AD&D game for high level characters. Frank had 10 characters ready and all were taken. I personally played a level 15/15 dwarven fighter cleric, and was probably one of the lower leveled characters in the game. There were many other multi-classed characters, but I think the single classed magic-user and cleric were both 18th level. I don’t believe I’ve ever played with such high level characters in any edition of the game.
There were two major flaws in this game. The first was that I managed to get stuck at the far end of added on table, meaning it was hard to hear Frank and hard for him to hear us. While I got on well with one of my immediate neighbors, the other two were not the types of guys I would normally choose to roleplay with. I dubbed them, Mr. Jokey and Mr. Distracted. Mr. Jokey was the sort to beat an idea to death, with the expectation that everyone would laugh and smile with him. When one player made a very clever and elaborate story up about being jewelry merchants, and wouldn’t the mayor’s secretary like a nice pair of earrings, and is she sure the mayor might not see us today instead of tomorrow, Mr. Jokey chimed in with “yeah, yeah, I slip her a platinum piece,” and grinned across the table as if we were all supposed to applaud him on his clever addition to the game. Mr. Distracted was a fine roleplayer when he was engaged in the game. However this came between taking phone calls, running off to the bathroom or to buy snacks, and visits right to the table from his children. He was always very apologetic about it, so much so that Frank yelled at him for being too polite and to knock it off, but seriously, either play the game or don’t.
OK, sorry, seemed to have gone off on a larger rant about my fellow players than I meant to. The second major flaw — the main thrust of the game was investigative. Now, this may have been our own faults, we used a lot of divination magic to skip past the dungeon and get straight to dealing with the main villain. However, the fact is that you simply can’t expect to engage 10 people around the table with investigatory roleplay. Worse still, the character meant to be the group’s leader was played by a rather un-assertive guy. Which meant that most of us floundered for what to do, debated options far to long, and ultimately left the progression of the game up to the two players willing to assert themselves and pursue their own ideas without help from the rest of the party. While I grant that watching the these two guys’ antics at the end was highly entertaining, especially as they came cross purpose as one tried to assassinate a major NPC and the other rushed to save him, between the start and that climax I spent a lot of time wondering what the heck I was supposed to do and how much time of the game was left anyway.
I went out to dinner with Jenn disheartened. While I won’t say the game was entirely unenjoyable, it certainly had its moments, I wasn’t ready to sit down to another four hours of the same. Frank’s evening game, Palace of the Vampire Queen using OD&D rules, was the one I had come to the convention really wanting to play, but now at dinner I was seriously considering giving the whole thing a miss and just relaxing in the hotel jacuzzi. Finally, refreshed after dinner, I decided that it felt too much like a missed opportunity to do so. I was hear to game, so I might as well take advantage of every opportunity to do so. Thank goodness I did that.
The second game was a fairly straight-forward dungeon crawl. We had 13 players, the most players I think I’ve ever sat down with to a game. We were all 2nd level. I made sure to get a seat right next to Frank, and I asked to play a fighting man intent on being in the front rank closes to the action. I actually ended up sitting next to the same guy I sat next to last game that I had gotten along with before, who did likewise, making the two of us the front rank of the party. A couple other familiar faces were there, including Mr. Jokey, but was far enough from them to ignore them.
It was a blast. I kept copious notes of our escapades, so I might yet type up an actual play report of the session and thus won’t go into too much detail here. We had several player deaths, but amazingly I emerged from the game only down three hit points, despite being up front the entire time. While some of the folks stuck way in the back of the line may not have been having quite as good a time as those of us up front, at least once we had a fight where almost the whole party was swarmed around a troll (which we actually killed!) and often the entire table was laughing and shouting at each other.
I was ready to blame my dissatisfaction of the first game on the number of players, but here we were playing with an even larger group and I was having a blast. Maybe to some degree it was just because I was being the assertive guy for this game like those other guys had done in the first game. But I also think it has something to do with the material, notably an exploration vs. an investigation. They’re pretty similar concepts actually, except I think one key difference. In the first game, Frank new the major points of the plot ahead of time, while in the second game there was no plot except that which we invented. It’s like in the first case the story was written before the play, while in the second the story was written through play.
Granted, the story in the first case was far more involved. And in the second game we didn’t even resolve anything. As far as we know, our characters are still up there on the third level searching for the stairs up. But in that game I never once looked at my watch, I cared far more about my character, and I’m far more eager to play a sequel.
I don’t know, maybe I’ve been drinking the old school kool-aid too much, and my analysis is skewed by my preconceived ideas. Either way I’m really glad I decided to go back and play the second game. That was truly fun. Not that I could imagine he’d ever read this, but just in case, thanks Frank!