North Texas RPG Con was held last weekend, and for the third time I was honored to be a special guest. This convention is one of the most enjoyable trips I make during the year. I ran four game sessions with four different rulesets (D&D B/X, Star Frontiers, Gamma World, and The Fantasy Trip), reminisced with old compatriots from TSR, made new friends, and generally had four days of fantastic fun.
Every convention stamps certain lessons on your brain. Most of these are things I've known for years, but having them reinforced is always valuable.
When it comes to air travel, being lucky is better than being smart. Dallas/Fort Worth Int'l Airport was all but shut down by lightning storms on Wednesday evening, when most of the convention guests flew in. Hundreds of stranded travelers were scouring the area for hotel rooms. There was a line of people hoping to check into the Bedford Hotel at 2 a.m. Some of them had been told that they'd be stuck in town until Friday before the airline could get them back on a plane. The phone at the registration desk was ringing nonstop and largely going unanswered.
In the midst of all that, my plane landed at 7:45 after only a brief delay and rolled directly to a gate. My luggage was delivered promptly. When I called the hotel, I got through immediately -- twice! Apparently I came in during a brief break in the storm. I didn't even realize there was a problem until the family sharing the shuttle with me explained that their connecting flight to Florida had been cancelled. According to the schedule, I should have been one of the last to arrive, then we'd all go out for dinner around 8:30. Instead we went to IHOP for breakfast at 1 a.m. -- without Zeb, who didn't reach the hotel until we were leaving the restaurant. We brought him a burger.
If you don't want an 8 a.m. start for a game, tell the event organizer beforehand. I live in Seattle. 8 a.m. in Fort Worth is 6 a.m. in Seattle. 'Nuff said.
Chainmail's morale rules don't make any more sense now than they did in the '70s. Marshall Mahurin ran a beautiful miniatures game of the Battle of Lonely Mountain (Five Armies) using the Chaimail rules. Chainmail was a rather elegant set of rules for its time and still holds up reasonably well in every regard but one. Its clunky, unintuitive, difficult-to-use morale rules are completely out of line with everything else in the game. Why Gygax and Perren wedded their smooth movement and combat rules to those awful morale rules will forever be a mystery.
Judges Guild published a lot of junk, but the swill concealed an occasional truffle. When I started working at TSR, we had to review everything that Judges Guild intended to publish for D&D. Being assigned to work on JG material was like KP; a stack of Judges Guild manuscripts would be dumped on your desk if you screwed up on something. The quality varied from mostly to only partly awful. I have a soft spot for it now, thanks to the rosy tint of time. Its awfulness has gained a patina of innocent charm. That's especially true for a booklet like the D&D Ready Ref Sheets (1978), which I picked up at the show. Where else will you find 50 pages of random tables and optional rules covering social levels, crime and punishment, witticisms and repartee, information to be gleaned from beggars, reasons why NPCs are angry, types of caves, 180 varieties of trees, and six different types of refuse (offal, sewage, parts, discards, food, and fuel, each with its own subtable). I dismissed such things as monkey doodles in the 1970s. Now, I find it fascinating. The simple fact that such tables exist makes me want to use them.
A monster's toughness and importance to the adventure is a perfect indicator of how many single-digit numbers I'll roll for it on a d20. Case in point: The characters in my adventure "An Emperor's Doom" faced a 12-headed hydra, one of the more ferocious monsters in Expert D&D. They were palpably concerned when they found out what they were up against. It died on round 2 of the fight, having attacked four times and inflicted 8 points of damage. With average luck on my part, it could have rolled 16-20 attacks. After that, I made Allan Grohe roll all the saving throws for the major villain of the adventure, to preserve some drama. If I'd rolled them, the climax would have been flatter than last week's beer.
Adventure twists and details that you come up with on the spot, in reaction to the player's actions, are always better than what you wrote ahead of time. No matter how much I plan for contingencies, players still surprise me. The better the players, the truer this becomes. Players at NTRPGCon are among the best I've had the pleasure of DMing for. Few experiences from behind the screen are more enjoyable than closing the score and riffing off the players. Like live jazz, the resulting performance is far more exciting and collaborative than the planned studio recording could have been.
There's no telling who you might meet in the hotel bar. The world is full of people who played D&D in their youth but grew up, moved into successful careers, and left imaginary adventures behind -- until they see a group of fellow grownups rolling dice, drawing maps, pushing miniatures, and having the time of their lives. Then they remember the thrill of being 14 and believing you can cast lightning bolts through your fingertips and slay dragons with a sword of frost. Ties get loosened, drinks get bought, and stories of grand adventure get told enthusiastically for the first time in years.
Gamers are smart, funny, cool people. A small convention like NTRPGCon displays those qualities better than any other venue. Of course gaming is a big part of the show, but hanging out with folk, chatting about times old and new, and swapping stories over food and drink are every bit as gratifying.