GARYCON PART 3
Saturday morning at GaryCon, tiredness finally caught up to me and I slept almost until noon. Hey, I turned 60 just after the con, gimme a break. David and I had a late breakfast and went to the Con. We spent most of the afternoon just sort of noodling around. I bought some stuff in the Dealer’s Room including some stuff from Black Blade and some really awesome little mini-modules from Lloyd Metcalf. I don’t really NEED any more gaming stuff, ever; but the GaryCon dealer room reminds me of Gen Con back about 1977 or so… full of lots of individual people and small two or three person companies with loads of energy, creativity, and enthusiasm. So, yeah, I spent a few hard earned GP to support some friendly shopkeepers!
I didn’t get to see the entire Auction, so I don’t know how much “The Sandal” went for. For those who missed last year’s installment, “The Sandal” is one of a pair of sandals that Gary, back in his shoemaking days, made for my oldest brother Chip. Somehow this one sandal survived, and we put it in the Auction to help raise some money. In 2014 the person who won it gave it back, saying “Auction it off again next year.” Which, by the way, is awesome.
The reason I didn’t get to see the whole Auction is that my friend Chirine ran an Empire of the Petal Throne game Saturday evening, and had invited me specially to play. Well, how can I refuse something like that?
Rather than going through any sort of long, complicated character generation, he had simply provided an ample number of pregenerated characters. There was a wide variety and assortment, so anybody could pretty much play what they wanted. However, he had a special treat for me. Many, many years ago in Phil’s EPT game, I had briefly played a character named “Robert of Barthensville” – a 14th century Flemish knight who fell through a “Nexus Point” into Tekumel. Well, Chirine had prepared a character folder for that character for me, complete with coat of arms instead of Temple and Clan affiliation. My reaction was on the order of “You bastard!” – said affectionately, let me assure you! I had actually forgotten that character until reminded. But Chirine never forgets!
Chirine’s games always serve as a reminder that RPGs came out of miniatures wargaming – there is always visual spectacle to be had. And he also has the “wargamer’s ethos” that the situation is the situation; that is, if the Horrible Icky Awful is in Chamber 34 and the players do not go into Chamber 34, they will NOT encounter the Horrible Icky Awful someplace else. The scenario has its own reality, and the referee will not alter it.
On the other hand, if you blunder into an ambush, you blunder into an ambush, and will suffer the consequences.
I was the “native guide” to help players who had never played Tekumel before. Rather than an open ended scenario, though, we had a mission; the High Priestess of the Temple of Avanthe, the goddess of agriculture and fertility an’ stuff, had been kidnapped by a renegade faction of the Temple of Sarku, Lord of Death and the Undead. Our mission was to rescue her.
In the world of Tekumel, all the Temples are signatories to what is called the “Concordat,” essentially a non-aggression pact (the Empire finds religions civil wars cut down on tax revenues). As part of our mission, the Imperium – the “Petal Throne” in “Empire of the Petal Throne” – had given us an official writ stating that the Temple of Sarku had violated the Concordat and that we were authorized to use whatever means necessary to rescue the High Priestess.
The best analogy I can think of is the scene in Richard Lester’s “Four Musketeers” where Cardinal Richelieu gives le Comte de Rochefort a writ stating “By my order, and for the good of France, the bearer has done what has been done.”
Or maybe, “The use of excessive force in the apprehension of the Blues Brothers has been authorized.”
One of the tools placed at our disposal was the underworld that Phil had placed under his starting city, Jakalla. I had explored parts of this, but had never seen the entire map until now. Phil used a 17 x 22 sheet of TEN SQUARE TO THE INCH graph paper, with each square equaling ten feet (just like in original D&D). Think about it… that is enormous. Over a quarter mile on the short side, and nearly half a mile on the long side, and all of it full to the brim with interesting stuff and horrible doom. For instance, in the southwest sector is a maze. And when I say a maze, I mean a TRUE maze; one way in, one way out, false turnings, dead ends, the whole nine yards. It’s about 900 by 900 feet. That’s three football fields.
Studying the map before we got started, we noticed a large underground river. We were shown our entry point, and our target zone down in the Underworld where the High Priestess was being kept captive. It was about half the map away, on the other side of the river. There is only one bridge, and we strongly suspected it would be guarded. However, I noticed a small structure on the river near our target that we were told was a dock! Figuring that if there was one dock there might be more, we searched the opposite shore on the map, and sure enough, another dock. This looked like a good way to bypass a whole lot of nasties if we could get there.
Once the mission started, there of course remained the real question; how will a bunch of people who don’t know each other, thrown together into a situation, work as a team?
Now, besides Tekumel, Chirine and I have done a LOT of miniatures wargaming together, either reffing or playing both same side and opposing. One of the things he taught me long, long ago was the importance of OBJECTIVE. Always, always keep your objective in mind. I gave a little pep talk in character to the other PCs, trying to make the point that our objective was to find the High Priestess and get her out alive. Any of us getting out alive as well was a bonus. But we were there to find her, free her, and get her the heck out of there, period. The Underworld is a huge and dangerous place, and if we went traipsing off like a bunch of Yellow Labradors (“Squirrel!”) we were doomed.
So how did it go?
Well, first of all, Chirine had gotten a projector so he could project the map up on a screen. This INSTANTLY meant that every player saw where we were, where we were trying to go, and what the known obstacles were. One of the problems with a dungeon crawl style game at a convention is keeping everyone involved. This solved that problem wonderfully; there was no boredom, not a lot of cross chat, even though in the initial part I was the “caller” for the party. The difference, of course, is that everyone could see what was going on, and I made sure to point out the key hazards we were avoiding as we went, and WHY we wanted to avoid them.
Also, although this was a pickup group of strangers at a convention, they got the main point of the mission – “Get in, get it, get out. Get it? Got it. Good.” They all realized we were trying to move quickly and without fuss, and the longer we lingered, the faster our luck ran out. The Imperial writ might get us out of trouble with other humans, but there were lots of underworld dwellers that would simply eat us.
There is always a concern when you’re gaming at a con with a bunch of strangers… how are they going to play? Not to mention, the typical D&D adventure is “run into the dungeon, bash the critters, grab the loot, and scarper.” There is nothing at all wrong with this, by the way… I STILL loves me an old school D&D dungeon crawl. But in the setting of Tekumel, this is not always wise.
Our first test came when we encountered some dormitory space on the outskirts of the territory controlled by the Temple of Hry’y. We showed the Writ to the monks who shrugged and said “Have a nice trip.” One of the players, Player A, said something like “I wonder if these guys have any good stuff.” I said in character “We have no quarrel with the Temple of Hry’y, and if we start one, this Imperial Writ will not be worth the parchment it’s scribed on.” To their credit Player A took the point without argument.
The next chamber was a storeroom. Player A said “Is there anything here worth taking?” I was considering letting them loot the room. Then another player said “If we rescue the High Priestess the temple will give us all the gold we want.” Player A said “Yeah, this is chicken feed.”
Not only did Player A “get it” in terms of staying on mission, but the OTHER players were obviously in tune with it as well.
Other than that, honestly, there isn’t much to tell. We moved quickly through the area, ducked out of sight when a ceremonial procession of Hry’y’s worshippers went by (don’t bother them, they won’t bother us) and raced without further impediment to where the High Priestess was being held.
And here we see that the other players really were paying attention. We bashed open the door to the area where she was, and before I could say a thing the other players cut down the guards and posted themselves at the far entrance, the magic user with the “Eye of Frigid Breath” had zotzed the guard reinforcements, the temple magicians had dissolved the magical cage around the High Priestess, and I was left with nothing to do but watch back behind us for the next batch of guards (poor saps never saw what hit them.)
I said that the map was projected up on a screen. Obviously they made good use of it.
After that, it really was all over but the singing. We gathered Her Nibs up and hightailed it out of there, getting her up, out, and away in record time, and back to her Temple to the polite applause of the acolytes.
The whole game start to finish took 2 ½ hours out of a 4 hour block of time. Chirine said he’d never seen a group move through the Jakallan underworld so quickly and quietly.
From my point of view, two things were worth noting.
Firstly, the other players. You get plenty of horror stories about gaming, especially among people who don’t know each other. This group, though, was really focused on “getting Tekumel” as a different type of game setting, and after a quick shakedown they were also really focused on the MISSION. The first principle of warfare is OBJECTIVE. But it’s amazing how quickly that can be lost. This group did not lose focus, and major kudos to them for that. It’s too rare.
The other thing is the AMAZING difference made by projecting the map up on a screen. In a group larger than four or five players it’s too easy to lose track of what’s going on when the mapper is talking the referee, especially at a convention where you might not be able to see or hear. I don’t have a projector, but I may have to see if I can get one, or even an easel for the mapper to put large pieces of graph paper on. I don’t know quite how to implement it, but believe me, letting ALL the players see the map is worth the effort it takes.
Sunday, I had breakfast with my brother who lives nearby and we headed back to Minneapolis. All in all, GaryCon continues to be one of the high points of the year for me, really recapturing the feel of GenCon back around 1975 or 1976 when this was all new and shiny and exciting.