Saturday, June 17, 2017

My Two Days at Origins

...were "meh."

THE SHORT VERSION

The OD&D game I signed up for didn't run at all, the Visual Dungeon game I managed to get into was excellent, the D&D 5e game I played was mediocre.

THE LONG AND RANTY VERSION

Thursday Afternoon: The OD&D game I signed up for was a bust. I showed up ten minutes early. One other player showed up. The GM and three players did not. One of us stayed in the room while the other went to the info table to see if the game location had been changed, or to see if we had it wrong. No, we were where we were supposed to be. But no GM or other players. So no game. And of course it was then too late to get into any other games in the 1-5 pm time slot. I got my fee for the session refunded, but that was cold comfort since that was the game I was most looking forward to. This was, to say the least, a less-than-promising start to the game fair.

I drowned my disappointment in some shopping in the vendor area, picking up three war games from Turning Point Simulations:
   - The Battle of Tours, 732
   - Hastings, 1066
   - Joan of Arc's Victory, 1420
I also bought the obligatory new set of dice.

One of the games I picked up.

Thursday Evening: The shining point of light in my Origins experience, as I managed to get into a game called Visual Dungeon. This was sort of like the Dungeon! board game, played on a twenty-five-square-foot 3D dungeon surface with vintage Grenadier miniatures, using 1st Edition AD&D rules and all under the pressure of a 1-hour-real-time limit.

The goal of the game was to acquire as much gold as you could before the 1-hour kitchen timer ran out. This was really a hoot. We could run off individually or team up with as many other players as we wanted. There were maybe 8 or 10 players and 2 GMs, each one working one half of the table. I had an elf archer and Mike, the guy I teamed up with, played a paladin. The board was laid out with all the doors, secret doors, trap doors, chests and other dungeon features hinting at treasure, visible to the players. This meant if you were smart/disciplined you could pick a lucrative-looking objective and make a beeline toward it – very important since those 60 minutes fly past in the blink of an eye. What was unknown was the location of monsters and traps. Before the game started, Mike and I formed a plan to dash toward a corner room, two rooms away from the start area, where a rather large chest was located. One player went off on his own. The other four or five players formed a large group and headed off toward the opposite end of the board.

The starting area, after all the characters had already run off in various directions. 

Mike and I were not lucky with our first room. The occupant was a 200 hp Titan (so probably about 20 HD) and we were playing 5th-level characters. I had 50 hp, and Mike about the same, so there was no way we'd survive a fight. We each offered the Titan a bribe to let us pass.  Mike had a +1 dagger that was useless to him, since he also had a +5 Holy Avenger sword. We negotiated and in the end Mike offered the dagger along with 10 gp. I had no worthless items to offer up, so I simply offered 30 gp. The Titan let us pass, but now we were actually down gold from our respective starting totals of 100 gp each. However, this did let us get to the room with the big chest, and we hoped that room would prove less deadly and more profitable.

Here we had the good fortune of stumbling on a group of seven lizard men. We quickly slew them and looted the bodies. Unfortunately one got away and ran to tattle on us to the Titan in the previous room. The latter decided to come and teach us not to mess with his neighbors. This meant we could not get to the huge chest we had initially targeted as we were forced to skedaddle through a trap door that was too small for the Titan to pass through.

The paladin, his horse, and me, fighting lizard men. 
The chest we were trying to get to is at the bottom of the photo. 
The Titan is in his room to the upper right of the image. 

This brought us to the next room, where we encountered two golems, one flesh and one clay. We started shooting and slashing the flesh golem, who was right next to us, as his clay companion lumbered over to help him, and eventually engaged us.

Then the kitchen timer rang and the GM called out "last round!" So Mike, who got three attacks every two rounds, was due for a two-attack round. We figured he could kill the flesh golem with those two attacks, and then I, with my boots of leaping, could hop over the clay golem and to a safe position where I could loot the flesh golem's body. This worked out exactly as we planned, resulting in a total of 40 additional gp in the final round.

Gold looted from monster bodies had to be split evenly between all participants in a fight according to the game rules, and that was the source of all our gp (there were other sources, like looting chests and such, that did not get shared, but neither of us managed to hit any of those). Mike's share of the gold from the flesh golem gave him the highest total of all players, a whopping 153 gp. Because I'd had to spend 20 gp more to bribe the Titan, I finished exactly 20 gp behind him at 133 gp. Everyone else had less. Mike won and, though it technically didn't count for anything, as a two-man team we did better than any of the other parties in our session.

This was a great game that turned out to be the highlight of the game fair for me.

Friday Morning: Packing, checking out, and loading up the car with everything I didn't need for my afternoon D&D 5e game. Went to the vendor area and bought a T-shirt for myself and some cute little bronze cat statues for my wife.

This was on the T-shirt I bought.

Friday Afternoon: D&D 5e. The game was mediocre. The adventure was a murder mystery, which had a lot of potential, but it ended up being a bit railroady for my taste, with a lot of "no, that doesn't work" or "no you don't detect anything" or "no this person doesn't know anything" every time we tried anything that wouldn't have necessarily led from point A to point B to point C the way the adventure writer intended. It felt a little bit like this:

GM: "I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 4. When you guess it you can move on."
Player A: "Is it 1?"
GM: "No, that's not it."
Player B: "Is it 2?"
GM: "No, that's not it."
Player C: "Is it 3?"
GM: "No, that's not it."
Player D: "Is it 4?"
GM: "Yes! Good job. You move on to the next area."

The GM read straight from the box text in the adventure, in a monotone, flair-free manner. This did not help.


To top it off, the GM was a bit "skill-check-happy" which I suppose may be normal (?) in modern games but I have to admit it really rubbed my old-school sensibilities the wrong way. This basically came in two flavors that combined to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

First there was "success flavor":
Player looks at a spot at the murder scene where there's likely to be blood.
Player: "I look that the statue's pedestal. Is there any blood there?"
GM: "Roll a perception check."
Player: "I rolled an 18."
GM: "You see streaks of blood."

Then there was "failure flavor":
Player looks at a spot at the murder scene where there's likely to be blood.
Player: "I look that the statue's pedestal. Is there any blood there?"
GM: "Roll a perception check."
Player: "I rolled a 2."
GM: "You don't notice any blood."

This is the kind of quirky stuff you get with an over-reliance on checks. If I'm looking for exactly the right thing, in exactly the right place, in broad daylight, without any threat or time pressure, how on earth is it possible that I wouldn't see what I'm looking for (or narratively, why would the GM not want the player to find it)? In other words, why even roll in the first place? And we had to roll for pretty much everything. Ultimately it started to feel like rolling to see if you could successfully zip your fly without pinching your pecker after pissing.

I'm sure not everyone plays modern games that way. But I got the impression our GM's philosophy was that since there are skill checks, you have to use them whenever possible. He didn't seem like a newb -- he just seemed like a veteran GM who runs his game that way.

In any case, we rolled and rolled and for me it created the impression that player skill went right out the window. It didn't matter that we were looking for the right thing in the right place, and it didn't matter if we did clever or creative things to try and get more info and solve the mystery, because the dice, coupled with the railroading, trumped whatever clever or creative things we tried to do.

In short, this is the first game I've ever played (at a con, online, or in a home group) where I thought the GM was actually poor. I can honestly say I've never had a GM before that I thought was bad. What saved the game and made it still somewhat fun was that the players were a good group, and we engaged in some entertaining role playing, often among ourselves when the NPCs refused to talk with us.

Truth be told, my one-hour session of "Visual Dungeon" the night before – where we felt like we could try anything and where the GM seemed very open to player ideas – was by far the most satisfying 60 minutes of my two days at Origins.

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