Wednesday, April 28, 2010

HelgaCon III -- Overall Recap

A grab-bag of miscellaneous thoughts from HelgaCon III:

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. OD&D is just a great frickin' game. Jon (new to OD&D) commented on how refreshing it was to have characters fit entirely on an index card. Kevin & I had a conversation reflecting on the brilliant semi-accident of D&D players customizing the game complexity by way of class selection (fighters fairly straightforward and common-sense based; wizards with a whole extra section of rules, allowing hardcore players to dig into spells, options, effects, and combos). We agreed on the tragedy of 4E demolishing that system, leaving only an undesirable, homogeneous middle ground for all players (Kevin: "Now both sides are rolling their eyes"; Me: "It's like blowing up the Taj Mahal").
  2. Presenting a "win condition" in convention games. I wrote about this already in my Corsairs game writeup. This gives direction to the session & generates way more excitement than I expected. Last year, I had an open-ended dungeon crawl the petered out a bit at the end. This year I had: the Book of War tournament (single elimination brackets to declare a champion), G1 (tournament-style scoring with 4 criteria), and Corsairs of Medero (capture 3 merchants to be declared barons). It's amusing that there was even some skepticism that the win conditions I stipulated were real, but the greater point is that the players were very focused, really caring about whether they were going to "win" or not. (In the past I'd considered awarding actual, physical prizes, but clearly that seems unnecessary.)
  3. Using d6 dice as oracles. I got looser with my gaming this year, using a lot of d6's for my decision-making. As a youngster DM, confronted with unexpected player actions, I'd be likely to make a decision like, "I don't think that would work; so, it doesn't work". Now I find myself reasoning, "I don't think that would work; so, only 2-in-6 chance to work". Really difficult? 1-in-6. Probably should work? 4-in-6. Split decision? 3-in-6. The d6's are fast and intuitive and provide an opportunity for the DM to be overruled by the game itself. And you really don't need any more granularity than that (i.e., d20's or percentiles would be mentally counter-productive; see the "magic number 7" rule).
  4. Several of us found that our players were exploring about 30% of the content we'd prepared. (See my G1 game; BJ's "Valley of the Forgotten Kings"; and Paul's "To the Rescue!".) This seems about right for an old-school sandbox-flavored convention game. There's some legitimate freedom of action for the players, but the DM isn't wasting (say) 90% of the prep work, either. This all assumes a fairly fast-moving early-D&D-style ruleset.
  5. Assigning a leader/caller works really well. While this is mentioned in all the classic old-school D&D texts, I'm absolutely the only person I ever see engaging it for D&D nowadays; I actually require it for all my D&D sessions. This selection always comes with a warning from me ("The idea is not to be tyrannical"); the concept being there's one person I'll listen to for group direction in the rare case of a complete total party impasse/ disagreement. (Kevin that weekend compared the role to a construction foreman; I compared it to a union representative.) The advantage is this: Instead of a having some dominant personality taking over by default in the middle of the game, it front-loads the conversation about how decisions will be made, getting advance agreement (buy-in) and, in all my games, choosing someone diplomatic & supportive of the group. (You could say that I'm forcing a representational democracy into the proceedings, as it were.) I've never seen it go bad. I assume it would be different if the whole group were total strangers, of course (thus, players not knowing the other personalities they're dealing with). (Big thanks to Kevin for the discussion on this subject & ride to the train stop after HelgaCon concluded.)
  6. Critical hits. The one "advanced" thing that I'm adding to my OD&D games, I've started using a series of pretty sophisticated critical-hit charts from Dragon Magazine #39 (July 1980; by Carl Parlagreco). On a natural "1" or "20" I give the possible fumble/critical victim a save vs. paralysis, else the critical charts are consulted. I'm finding that it adds a very nice spice; detailed, surprising, and concrete. In the G1 game, once or twice a giant took triple damage; one PC fighter fumbled, knocking his helmet around backwards to become temporarily blinded. In the Corsairs game, while boarding an enemy ship, one PC accidentally hit the allied sailor coming right behind him with an axe, splitting his skull and dropping him into the sea. It's a nice "fog of war" touch.
  7. Encumbrance rules in OED work wonderfully. I actually assumed I'd do all the accounting myself as DM (I can do it in my head in a few seconds per PC) -- but the players in all my games picked it up easily & instantly, doing all the work without me even asking. Kudos to BJ who last year suggested that I provide a chart for encumbrance to the players.
  8. Book of Spells worked great. In all of my games now, I hand every wizard player their PC card, a list for their spellbook, and a digest copy of Book of Spells. There's no need to pass a single, monolithic rulebook around the table as wizard players look up their spell effects, and they don't have to repeatedly hunt through the book for where the spells section is. I got some great compliments on this. Spell descriptions really should be reserved for their own book, just for the wizard players.
  9. Customizable GM screen is just ideal. Again, it's simply the right tool for the job. It's sturdy, and it's low, so you can see & reach over it. I change it for each game, on my side having (1) an adventure-specific monster roster, (2) a reduced & annotated dungeon map, and (3) the new-for-me critical-hits tables (other than that, I can run OD&D off the top of my head). I drop player visual aids into the front at will (I used have to hunt for paper clips, etc.) All of us at HelgaCon are using one of these nowadays.
  10. Fantasy name generator by Chris Pound. As you may know, my buddy Paul & I were arguing about pretty much everything game-theory related for the whole weekend. With one exception: We realized that we'd both independently discovered & fallen in love with Chris Pound's "standard fantasy name generator", out of the hundred-or-so generators Chris has on his page. The great irony here is that Chris himself is down on this particular generator, calling it "a bit silly... not very 'cool' yet (as if it ever could be!)".
  11. Not taking a laptop computer. In the past, I brought a laptop; this year I ditched it. (1) Time available for using it is very limited anyway. (2) Weight in the traveling backpack kind of irritated my anyway. (3) Theft concern while traveling made me a little anxious sometimes. A pad of lined paper works perfectly fine (allowing me a quick thought-dump/ first draft of stuff on the bus in the ~2 hours I'm not sleeping).
  12. Using color-coded dice. I now have a big box of dice separated out into different colors of the rainbow. When I'm DM'ing I take mostly a big stack of d6's (hit dice, damage, searching, etc.) and a d20 of each of the different colors. Thus, when making a whole bunch of monster attacks or saves at once, I can roll the whole fistful of d20's and just sort them visually red-orange-yellow-green-blue-indigo-violet, applying the results to a half-dozen monsters at a time.
  13. We have a fantastic late-Friday night chat at HelgaCon every year. I'm the biggest late owl (I always shut off the lights), and it's really gratifying for Adam & Kevin to stay up until 3 AM for a conversation about D&D, the gaming industry, philosophy of mind, cyberpunk literature, religion, etc., etc. It's really honest and humbling, and I feel fortunate and like an enormous amount of trust is there. It's funny that we get this intense re-connection just once a year.
  14. Big thanks to my girlfriend (Isabelle) for playtesting stuff in advance (including OED, Book of War, and the Corsairs of Medero games)! Her criticisms were almost unerringly on target, allowing me to fix/tune stuff ahead of time, cultivating the biggest successes at the convention. (In particular, simplifications we made to BOW, and movement scale funkiness in Corsairs). She doesn't consider herself a hardcore gamer, but by being sensitive to her "new player" reactions (complaints), and using her as a sounding board, it's paying huge dividends in the games I run.
  15. Personally, I'm growing older; yet, I'm comfortable with that. In many ways, I'm at my physical & intellectual peak. I get to share my experiences with younger players in the hobby (I've become one of the "wise sages" at our annual con), I get to be a bit more assertive in public and in class, and I'm okay with that. To my total astonishment, I'm feeling really lucky with my life (!).

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Remembering certain OED spell saves. There are some AD&D-era spell traditions that are really hard to work out of my system when running a live game. I routinely forgot to roll saves for things like sleep and magic missile (that we're all used to being no-save), even though there's no such language in the LBB's themselves, and I'm committed in my OED rules to giving them saves (like everything else). That's something I need to work on.
  2. Todo: Get a physical pointer. There's a lot of times where it'd be convenient to use one of those physical tools to point out a particular miniature or spot on a map (instead of leaning past people at the table). I could use it as a DM, as a player, and even while teaching math class.
  3. I should ask other people to take photos of games while I DM. This is actually something we discovered during the last tour with our band; it gets a great response, with someone feeling the warm fuzzies from being chosen for it, and being more involved in the performance itself. I need to utilize the same trick while DM'ing. There's no pictures for my last 2 games from HelgaCon; in each case I had a camera set out at the start, but once I set into DM'ing duty it never even remotely crossed my mind.
  4. In addition, my digital camera's really fucked up, which is too bad. Takes about 4 photos before draining new batteries. I really liked this thing when I first got it as a gift; I might have to break down and get a mobile phone with a camera in it.


  1. You are right; it does sound like you have a great life! In these troubling times, I'm trying to remind myself of the same things.

    Sounds like agreat time. Color me envious!

  2. Delta said:
    "We agreed on the tragedy of 4E demolishing that system, leaving only an undesirable, homogeneous middle ground for all players..."

    I guess I must be suffering from some sort of Stockholm syndrome then, as I've somehow managed to enjoy over thirty sessions of "badwrongfun" 4E. Or perhaps... perhaps different mechanically legitimate strokes for different folks?... nah...

  3. I hit that opposing opinion with the "badwrongfun" bat!

  4. Ha! The badwrongfun bat doesn't deal permanent damage to illusionary trolls! I use my clawed hand to deal 1d4+4 damage to your treehouse!