GaryCon 2015: 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.

Beer, out.


Gary Con 2015: Part 2

Friday morning was taken up with doing some filming with Anthony and Cecily for “Dungeons and Dragons: A Documentary.”  I’d been interviewed; this time around it was recording some transition pieces to move between major themes.  It was a lot of fun.

Friday afternoon was “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” refereed by Mike Carr.  The scenario involved French merchantmen running from British forces, and a French squadron of warships coming out to protect the merchantmen.  I arrived a bit late after the filming and wound up getting the smallest British ship, a 24 gun Sloop of War that had been shadowing the merchantmen.

It looked at first like I wouldn’t be doing much; I was quite a ways out.  Fortunately, in the British navy when an enemy vessel was captured all the captains within line of sight shared the prize money.  When a British frigate captured a French frigate I ran up signal flags.  In DGUTS this is done by writing your message… no more than 3 words… and handing it to the nearest friendly player, who hands it around.  Considering the situation, my three words were easy to choose:


I ended up charging into battle against a damaged 40 gun French frigate.  This ship had twice the displacement of mine and the guns were much heavier, making the “24 vs 40” misleading.  Several of my fellow British captains expressed concern that I was throwing my ship away.  But I, speaking truthfully, fought my ship right well, crossing the Frenchy’s “T” twice with opening broadsides, once at point-blank range allowing me to “rake” her.  Alas, the greater strength of the Frenchman’s hull prevented me from taking her, though I did take down a mast.  The engagement rather reminded me of Henry the Chicken Hawk from the old Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, and earned me the nickname of “Mad Anthony” Mornard.

Friday evening was my usual OD&D game, “Magic Users with Knives.”  My only complaint is that this was in the main room near the door, and as such it was VERY noisy.  I let in some extra people who hadn’t been able to get into a game elsewhere, with the kind consent of my players.  Unfortunately, my tiredness caught up to me; I was rather worn out by this time, and honestly, I felt like I really didn’t do my best job of running OD&D.  My apologies to my players.

Saturday morning I wound up sleeping til noon; I was that tired.  I got to the Con too late for the “Cavaliers and Roundheads” battle being run by Jeff Perren — my apologies to referee and players alike.

I spent Saturday afternoon noodling around, mostly, and bought a few goodies in the dealers’ room.  I sat in on the GaryCon Auction again.  The sandal Gary made for my brother was up on the block again, but I didn’t see how much it went for, as I had a game that evening.  Probably the most spectacular thing in the auction was a 5″ or so pewter statue of Mary Gygax as “The Pirate Queen,” commissioned years ago by Fritz Leiber (who dubbed her The Pirate Queen” originally.)  It was an exquisitely done piece with a very significant history.

Saturday evening was the last game I was playing in for the convention… Empire of the Petal Throne.

But you’ll have to wait for my next installment for that.

Beer, out.

GaryCon 2015: Part 1

Well, today is Gary Gygax’s birthday, so it seems a good time to get off my butt and post about GaryCon back in March!

I once again got to go to GC with friends…. my friend Victor once again, and my dear close friend David Thornley, whom I’ve known since 1973.  David hasn’t been to a gaming con since we stopped going to GenCon back in the 80s.

The only bad part is, quite frankly, none of us are as young as we were thirty years ago.  With jobs and my night shift schedule, we were all kind of tired all weekend.  Oh, well.  We went down on Wednesday once again.  We couldn’t get lodging at the main hotel so we ended up staying at “The Cove.”  Lake Geneva’s a pretty small town so it wasn’t a huge problem.  We had a wonderful dinner just the three of us at Sprechter’s at the Cove on Wednesday night, and briefly bumped into Anthony and Cecily, the creative team for “Dungeons & Dragons:  A Documentary.”

We took our time Thursday morning getting out to the convention, had a nice leisurely breakfast at the Olympic diner.  Thursday late morning/afternoon was spent getting badges, wandering around, meetin’ and greetin’, and generally getting the lay of the land.

My first event was the Thursday evening CHAINMAIL historical miniatures battle, “The Battle on the Ice.”  Based on the historical Battle of Lake Piepus as portrayed in the movie “Alexander Nevsky,” this is the third year I’ve run the battle.  I did some serious revision of the Order of Battle and I’m pleased to report that the game went very well, and I think it’s about as balanced as I can get it.  The Teutonic Knights racked up their third victory in a row, but everyone agreed it was a close thing and could easily have gone either way.

My ingenuity as a referee was tested when the Teutonic Knights broke through the ice… which I’d planned for… and Prince Alexander and his knights charged into 5 feet of icy water to melee with the perfidious Huns in the water, which I had NOT planned.

I’m currently writing an article for Gygax Magazine on this battle, so if you want to see how I resolved things, watch this space for more details on when the article will be published!  (shameless plug!)

The convention venue again served food and drinks to gamers at their tables, which is a wonderful service I can’t praise highly enough.  After our evening games we returned to our rooms and retired.

More to come.

Beer, out.

The Three Laws of RPG Rules

We’ve all heard of Asimov’s three laws of robotics, right?

Well, in the same vein, I offer “Mornard’s Three Laws of RPG Rules.”
1)  The rules cannot fix stupid.

2)  The rules cannot fix asshole.

3)  Anything that happened when you, or the referee, were 14, does not constitute a need to change the rules.

Sometimes a “Tank” is NOT a guy in heavy armor

A sample chapter about a surprising root of the game of D&D.


Another one of the games we played a lot was TRACICS, a WW2 miniatures wargame. Wargamers being wargamers, WW2 wargames means tanks. And much like CHAINMAIL influenced D&D and how we played it, TRACTICS also influenced how we played D&D.

If you do any research at all on armored combat, one thing you find out very quickly is how limited visibility is inside a tank. From the first World War One experiments right up until today, observation has been extremely important to tanks. It’s not surprising that wargames based on tanks would have rules about observation. Virtually every WW2 game I’ve ever played uses some sort of observation rule, whether it’s dummy markers, or dice rolls to spot, or a variety of other methods. What TRACTICS uses is an “observation path.”

In TRACTICS, a single vehicle can observe a path 4” wide, from the center of the vehicle to the edge of the board. Anything in that path is seen, unless it is behind trees, behind a hill, or similarly concealed. This may sound like a lot. We played TRACTICS on a 5 by 8 foot table, though. Go measure out a 5 by 8 foot area, pick a random spot, and measure a 4” path. You’ll see that a LOT of area is NOT being observed.

You can only shoot at what you see, and the other side can only shoot at you if they see you. It doesn’t take much to figure out how vital observation is in this sort of game, and that is exactly the case; learning where to look to anticipate enemy units, how to look with various units to maximize coverage, and how to take advantage of concealment, were major portions of the play of the game.

This carried over into D&D in a couple of ways. First, we were used to being very careful about where we were looking, and specifying it exactly. Even though we weren’t limited to a 4” wide path, we assumed that observation was important. Possibly the most famous instance of this is Terry Kuntz, who, every time he stepped through an opening, would announce “I look up and down and all around.” Opening a door and then saying “We look around before we enter” was second nature. If you just went blundering in, you deserved whatever happened to you. (Note that this is not the same as the referee saying “You didn’t say that you were looking specifically for a black dragon on top of a pile of gold, so you didn’t see it and it kills you.” The technical term for that is “the referee is an asshole.”)

The other major effect that TRACTICS had on us was that “you can’t anticipate everything.” When you only have a 4” wide path to observe on a 40 square foot board, there WILL be areas that are not under observation. Sometimes, the first clue you would have that there were enemy forces around is when your lead tank blew up. Not only that, but unless one of the surviving units was observing the right place, you had no guarantee of seeing the enemy even after they opened fire. Nothing like spending two or three turns of frantic scrambling as your tanks are getting picked off, trying to figure out where the HELL the enemy is!

Also, one thing you learn about tank combat is that armor does not make you invulnerable. It increases the difficulty of the enemy destroying a unit, but no matter what vehicle you have – yes, even a Tiger II or Jagdtiger – if the enemy wants it destroyed badly enough, they will destroy it. So when we were down in the dungeon, the notion that, for instance, poison could kill you no matter what didn’t seem out of line to us. Nothing was certain; everything carried some modicum of risk.

This meant that in D&D we had a certain bit of fatalism in our attitude. There were precautions you could take, and nobody wanted to die by being a dolt – like Goose says in “Top Gun,” “The Department of Defense regrets to inform you that your sons have been killed because they were stupid.” But ultimately we knew that, no matter how careful we were, no matter what precautions we took, there was always a chance that the first clue we would have that there was something dangerous would be the referee’s words of “Roll a saving throw.”

Sometimes, you don’t know the enemy is there until the lead unit dies.


Beer, out.