Tag Archives: GEN CON

Gen Con 1981: From D&D Nerdvana to Stranded by My Lies

In 1981 Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next game session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” But Mike and I lacked the athletic prowess of the sportos and proved too mild for the freaks, so we kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high school circle, no parents objected to loosing unsupervised teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck my folks as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judgement of friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

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Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if Dirty Harry had caught us punks at the scene of our crime.

Instead, Harold the custodian mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2019, Gen Con drew about 70,000 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

Today, the number 1 rule imposed by Gen Con 17 in 1984 seems ridiculous. “Live action events are not allowed.” Today, that would forbid an entire track of live-action roleplaying, any sparring with foam swords, and the immensely popular True Dungeon.

Game Master letter from Gen Con 17 in 1984

To gamers in 1984, the rule seemed just as silly, but we understood why it existed. Live-action role playing fueled a toxic misunderstanding of Dungeons & Dragons among non-gamers. D&D’s publisher, TSR, owned Gen Con and the company forbade live-action gaming to avoid alarming parents and journalists.

At Gen Con in the 80s, any live action gaming came from the match between players of Steve Jackson’s Killer and the convention administrators fighting to stomp out this rebellion.

What toxic misconception led to rule 1?

This story begins five years earlier on August 15, 1979 when a 16-year-old college student and computer nerd named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His parents hired private detective William Dear to find their missing boy. (If this tale were fiction, the name Egbert would seem too on the nose.)

Dallas Egbert played D&D, a game that seemed strange enough to becomes Dear’s key lead. “Incredibly, there were more than one hundred dungeons in the East Lansing area alone when Dallas disappeared,” Dear wrote in his 1984 account, The Dungeon Master. His phrasing makes D&D dungeons seem like real locations hidden from polite society. The investigation uncovered rumors that some students played live-action D&D in the steam tunnels under the university. One contact explained, “If you’re familiar with the game, you’ll know that the tunnels are as close to the real thing as you can get.”

The detective focused his hunt on the notion that Egbert had played D&D in the eight miles of steam tunnels and remained lost, hidden, or trapped. Dear wondered if D&D had broken the “fragile barrier between fantasy and reality.” Perhaps D&D left Egbert so deluded that he believed he was a wizard exploring the dungeon. Perhaps his attempt to make the game real had left him hurt or even dead in the tunnels. “Dallas might actually have begun to live the game, not just to play it.”

Dear asked to search the steam tunnels, but the university refused. To force action, he turned to the press and the story fired a media furor. “Within a week, reports on Egbert had appeared in virtually every major American media outlet, as well as many international sources,” Jon Peterson writes in Playing at the World.

In Dragon magazine 30, editor Tim Kask wrote, “As I am writing this (11 Sep), Dungeons & Dragons is getting the publicity that we used to just dream about, back when we were freezing in Gary’s basement in the beginning. If we had our druthers, it would not have happened in such a fashion. Whatever the circumstances of the incident, it has been a nightmare for his parents and family, as well as for TSR Hobbies, Inc.”

Under the media spotlight, the story grew. University police took anonymous phone calls from a woman who claimed Egbert and others had played D&D in the tunnels. She said if anyone found Egbert, he would be found dead.

Egbert’s disappearance introduced Dungeons & Dragons to America. The reports painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as a “cult.” A story in The New York Times speculates that Egbert became lost “while playing an elaborate version of a bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Students at Michigan State University and elsewhere reportedly have greatly elaborated on the game, donning medieval costumes and using outdoor settings to stage the content.”

On September 9, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner published an article titled, “Fantasy cult angle probed in search for computer whiz.”

“Police hunting for a missing 16-year old computer whiz, yesterday completed a futile search of tunnels beneath the Michigan State University campus where fantasy lovers acted out roles in a bizarre game.”

Reporters consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. Under the story lies the notion that D&D pulls players so deeply into fantasy that they lose touch with reality—that the game lures players to play out the fantasy in real life.

Dear’s account gives an example. “If the dungeon master believes that a particular character is weak, he can send that character off on his own. Not just in the game, not just in his head. He can send him on a real mission. ‘You have to prove you’re worthy to play with us,’ the DM might say. ‘You have to show your mettle. I have a mission that you must complete.’ Usually the mission is something like spending a night in a haunted house, but it’s not hard to imagine that it could be much more demanding.”

Dear showed a talent for chasing fanciful tales. Later, he would appear in a 1995 broadcast showing an alien autopsy that Fox Television teased as possibly real.

On September 13, less than a month after the disappearance, Egbert called and revealed his location. The teen’s attempt to flee depression had led him on a trek that took him to the home of an older male “admirer,” to Chicago, and then to Morgan City, Louisiana. During his trek, he survived two suicide attempts.

Egbert had turned to D&D for respite from his other troubles. He faced intense academic pressure from parents who had pushed him to skip two grades. He was gay at a time when few people accepted or tolerated the trait. (Later, he would beg Dear to keep this secret hidden.) In the book Perfect Victims, journalist Bill James writes, “Egbert was living among older kids who had nothing in common with him and who didn’t particularly like him. He was regarded as an irritating little twerp. He was 16, but looked 12. He got involved in numerous campus activities and groups, each of which devised a new kind of rejection for him.”

In a press conference, Dear said the teenager’s disappearance was not related to Dungeons & Dragons. But the detective still sees D&D as a bad influence. “You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy,” Dear said. “This isn’t a healthy game.”

Three years later, the group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons would start promoting the notion that D&D encouraged devil worship. The satanic panic began. But the premise that D&D unhinged kids from reality inspired wider concerns. My community was closer to Lake Geneva than the Bible Belt, so no one took the threat of Satanism seriously. Still, plenty of parents felt that D&D players showed an unhealthy detachment from reality.

The story of James Dallas Egbert ends sadly. In 1980, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Perhaps if he had lived just a little longer, his tale could have led to a happier ending. The intelligence that isolated him could have become an asset. The secret that tormented him became more accepted. It gets better. Perhaps, in more time, D&D could have helped him find his people.

In 1984, neither Gen Con nor TSR wanted to risk letting wizards and warriors blur fantasy and reality in live action games—not where parents, journalists, and other concerned citizens might see.

Cast members of the live D&D interactive held at Gen Con 2019 (Photo by Eric Menge)

Since then, D&D’s reputation has improved, and not just because society turned to blaming video games instead.

Today, instead of seeing D&D as a break from reality, parents see real-life connections. Ethan Schoonover hosts a D&D club at the all-girls middle school where he teaches. To sell the game to parents, he offers a simple formula: “You just say, ‘no screen time’ and parents’ eyes light up.”

D&D makes a game of the cooperation and problem solving skills that kids need to succeed. More to the point of this tale, D&D teaches social skills and empathy, two assets everyone should develop.

Empathetic D&D players can see a measure of our own struggles in Egbert’s tragedy. Now we know that D&D isn’t the game that dooms geeks like Egbert. Sometimes, it’s the game that saves us.

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

Origins 2017: Choose Your Own Dungeons & Dragons Adventure

This year at Origins, I split my time between serving as a dungeon master, and playing in Dungeons & Dragons games. Remember the disappearing McFly family photo from Back to the Future? It gave Marty McFly a look at his progress toward setting his future right. This year at Origins Game Fair, I ran an epic adventure that made me think of that photo. More on that later.

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop D&D. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

Goblins and scenery from Tomb of Annihilation

Elmwood adventures

I arrived with two convention-created adventures on my DM schedule. ELMW 2-1 Tendrils in the Fog and ELMW 2-2 Mists of the Moonsea read well. They land characters in vibrant scenes that promise to excite players. Both adventures feature a good mix of role-playing, investigation, and combat challenges. ELMW 2-1 takes players to villages and hideouts along the Moonsea, before ending in a small dungeon. ELMW 2-2 features battles on and under the sea, and ends with an ambush spanning a series of rope bridges. Both adventures pit the players against a group of adventurers cursed by evil. The foes resemble any number of morally questionable parties, perhaps dialed one notch darker. I loved these villains. ELMW 2-2 proved as fun as I anticipated.

An introduction to Tomb of Annihilation

I never ran ELMW 2-1 because the marshals needed an extra hand to run the introductory adventures for Tomb of Annihilation. I ran these adventures cold, reading one step ahead of the players. Each of this set of 5 missions plays in hour and a half or so. These adventures take characters to the jungle of Chult and the exotic Port Nyranzaru. Chult substitutes dinosaurs for shining knights and blood-sucking vines for wizards in pointy hats. Players feel like Indiana Jones in a lost world.

Most of the folks who come to play D&D at Origins rank as passionate players who bring a quiver of characters and who may play adventures more than once. The introductory adventures draw a different mix of players. First-timers and gamers who haven’t played since THAC0 join the D&D enthusiasts. The new and returning players bring a fresh enthusiasm that I savor. In the past, I haven’t volunteered for these introductory adventures, but next year, I plan to.

At conventions like Origins, where the dungeon masters belong to the Heralds Guild, we get scored based on players’ feedback. Running the introductory adventures cold lead to a dip in my score for preparation. I can’t argue with the accuracy, but seeing a drop in my overall judge scores disappointed me.

Hecatomb

This year, Origins hosted all three of the epic adventures that accompany Tales from the Yawning Portal. I played in Hecatomb, an epic for tiers 3 and 4.

Hecatomb’s author ramped up the difficulty of this adventure, even for tier 4. I love a challenge, so I welcomed the threat. I heard tales of tables practically wiped out. Meanwhile, at my table, two characters died, rose as undead, and attacked surviving players at other tables. One of the DMs administering the event went from table to table with a group of players running their now-undead PCs. The dead took revenge on the living. This “interaction” beats just having some evil champion roaming from table to table.

Hecatomb landed all the players on massive battlefield, scrambling to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. Presumably, our comrades in arms fought on battlemaps next to ours, facing other battles for other obelisks. By social convention, everyone agrees not to seek out the folks at the next table to form a party of 12.

Our party featured a crossbow expert/sharpshooter character—number 1 on my list of character types absurdly good at one thing. Even folks who play the combination find it overpowered. After taking casualties, our table changed strategy. We realized that the sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. In this optimal strategy, my magic user’s best contribution was to cast Haste on the sharpshooter. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley. Encounter designers need to consider sharpshooting just as they might consider something like flying. If you design an encounter where characters can engage foes from 500-yards away, then for parties with sharpshooters, the monsters resemble infantry crossing no-man’s land.

Return to White Plume Mountain

I ran Return to White Plume Mountain as a dungeon master. This epic accommodated both tier-2 and 3 characters. The tier-3 PCs fought to thwart a sacrificial ritual, while the tier-2 PCs attempted to distract the monsters, drawing them away from the main assault.

Return to White Plume Mountain worked hard to foster interaction. Some of its methods fascinated me.

A twist that required communication. Return gave each party a sending stone linked with another table. In many epics, such stones enable communication, but Return also included a clever trick that could foil groups who failed to communicate. In my session, some tables treated messages as a distraction and failed to notice the essential information. If more solutions come from messages between tables, the design would work even better.

Scoring that affected encounters for both tiers. Return featured a push-pull dynamic where each tier’s efforts drew monsters away from the other tier. Potentially, this could force tables to agree on a strategy that raises enough of a distraction to ensure success without drawing all the monsters into a deadly encounter. In practice, tier-2 tables just saw a distraction score that they could raise. Like any good gamers, they put all their energy to reaching a high score. Tables marched through the dungeon making more noise than a parade, without seeing the danger. In the end, tier 2 faced all the monsters.

The push-pull feature would work better if, instead of a rising score, the players saw the additional monsters in their future. Suppose some divination magic gives the PCs visions of their near future. This idea made me think of the McFly family photo—a vision of the future that results from the players’ current actions. I wanted a line of miniature figures that showed the monsters to come, but a scorecard handout would work as well. Back in How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever, I recommended letting players choose their own difficulty. In Return, a more visual push-pull mechanic would help.

Every table joined in the same battle. In the finale, all the tier-2 parties enter a massive dungeon room where they spot the ritual at the far side. An army of tier-3 monsters defend the ritual. As intended, the tier-2 parties stay on their side of the room and work to rescue sacrificial victims until tier 3 arrives near the heavy hitters to thwart the ritual. This works so long as the Tier-2 groups stay in their lane and avoid any bold ideas that might interfere with the ritual.

Step aside, pipsqueaks. I’ll finish this.

When I ran, my tier-2 group had little reason to stay in their lane. Before entering the final room, tier-2 table captains gather to share resources. Somehow, my table’s captain returned from the meeting with an allied planetar summoned by a tier-3 table. So a party clustered around level 7 added a challenge-rating-16 powerhouse with a fly speed of 120. I spent days wondering what part of the adventure let tier-3 tables share such resources with tier 2. What did I miss? The event’s one administrator was doing a job intended for three people, and I think he overlooked this extra interaction. But at the time, I figured the planetar came approved by the boss.

When my group entered battle arena and saw the ritual on the far side, they wondered whether to send their planetar to intervene. In one round, the celestial could have flown across the entire room, engaged the villain, and dealt lethal damage, while using innate Truesight to foil the Contingency intended to keep the villain alive. Before 6 tables even reached the final encounter, the event administrator could have stood and announced the abrupt victory to all 12 tables. “Now everybody has an extra hour for lunch. You can thank table 3 on the way out.”

Dungeon masters, choose your own adventure. In this situation, do you…

  • Tell the players you don’t care what anyone says. They can’t bring a planetar. (But the planetar came from the boss, and I can’t believe you’re saying “no” to your players.)
  • Let the planetar cross the room, then invent reasons that it fails to thwart the ritual. (You’re just abusing your power as a DM just to make the players fail.)
  • Pass the planetar back to the overextended event administrator and let him figure out what to do with it. (Just say, “Excuse me. I know that you’re already doing 3 jobs, but I can’t handle a little trouble at my own table.”)
  • Let the planetar solve the epic for all 12 tables. (Everybody, you’re welcome!)
  • Suggest that the players stay in their lane and use the planetar to help themselves. (Why should players have to meekly follow the author’s intent?)

My players stayed in their lane. I’m not particularly happy with the way I handled the situation. How would you do it?

D&D Open

In eight hours, the D&D Open aims to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments. The Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley, capture all the challenge that made the original event such a blast. This year, I played as groups ventured to the jungle land of Chult to rob the tombs of dead gods. Monsters native to this lost world provided a unique flavor.

The event added a room of physical and mental challenges for Players—something like dungeon carnival games. Everyone seemed to enjoy this short break from the table.

The adventure also added the shtick of having a wandering monster roam from table to table to trade attacks. I only like this trick when the wandering menace comes from now-undead PCs. In a quasi-competitive event where players race against time, I disliked the gimmick more than usual. Fortunately, the interruption only takes a few minutes.

The event’s finale featured clever twist and a thrilling race to escape. The escape encouraged even faster play and set an objective other than kill everything. Once again, the D&D Open delivered the year’s best D&D game.

How to Say Yes Without Turning Your D&D Game Into a Joke

In my last post, I explained how challenging myself to say yes to players made me a better dungeon master, even though I sometimes said no.

Sometime in the 90s, I returned gaming conventions after more than a decade away. Some folks played Dungeons & Dragons differently than I remembered. I played with a DM who said yes to more gifts than Santa Claus. Any time a player wanted to try some lame scheme, the DM would permit it—and grant a big bonus for creative thinking. His game held no challenges. It only existed for his players to show off.

My DM’s habit of saying yes should have created a collaborative story that enchanted me, but instead I felt bored.

Some folks equate saying yes with good storytelling. From this perspective, characters are the foundation of story. Players control the characters. Only bad DMs keep the storytelling to themselves. Saying yes to the players lets them contribute to a shared story.

Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique abilities. In one convention game, a water genasi monk’s fast swim speed let her breeze through this encounter.

Except good storytelling rests on characters who face obstacles. If you make obstacles that just enable characters to demonstrate how great they are, then you create a certain, notoriously dull sort of story. Your story features a Mary Sue who can only impress everyone by being wonderful.

In D&D, players never ask a DM to say yes to something that adds obstacles. Players ask for advantages. Players see a high Performance skill on their character sheet, and then ask to sing a cave-in away because maybe the right note starts a landslide. Saying yes isn’t the route to compelling stories.

But D&D isn’t really a storytelling game. Nobody wants to hear a story about your D&D character. The fun of D&D comes from playing the game. For most of us a big part of that fun comes from a chance to feel wonderful and impressive in our character’s shoes.

I often meet players who want to win D&D when they devise a superior character. The play at the table, for them, just offers a victory lap.

So does my desire for a game that challenges me and my characters make me an oddity?

For most players, credible obstacles help make role-playing games compelling. Call of Cthulhu typically ends in insanity or death, but you still get to thwart a dark god against overwhelming odds. Your characters’ losses make them more heroic than the D&D characters who always come out of scrapes better than before.

Nobody sits at a D&D table for vicarious insanity or death. In D&D, characters improve by gaining experience and magical gear. That steady improvement makes the game addictive. D&D players relish chances to show off.

I suspect most players crave a mix of challenges, chances to show off, and chances to feel powerful by overcoming real challenges.

Case in point: My friend Tom is a by-the-book DM with stronger mastery of the rules than anyone I know. Some have called him a dick DM, and he wears that label with a note of pride. He doesn’t try to win against players, but he won’t say yes to a brazen attempt to use Performance. Tom is an expert at running monsters so they make tough, canny foes. Sometimes Tom kills characters. He killed one of mine. If D&D players favored DMs who simply let characters show off, then Tom would rate as a bad DM. Not Tom. As a DM, he reached an elite, level-4 ranking in the Heralds Guild of DMs. This means Tom served a DM at conventions for table after table of strangers, and earned nearly perfect scores on their feedback forms. In his games, when characters show off, they earned it.

D&D works best when DMs find a balance between credible challenges and letting each player feel like a bad ass.

NFL star Cam Newton dominates pee-wee football

Sometimes finding the right mix just requires the players and DM to focus on their roles: Players work to make their characters awesome, while their DM takes charge of posing challenges. In this role, the DM acts as the characters’ biggest fan. As a fan, I want the characters to triumph against real tests. I want a 6’5” 250 pound NFL quarterback to face elite athletes rather than pee-wee football players. Let the Fantastic Four beat Doctor Doom rather than Paste-Pot Pete.

So as a DM, when the players ask you to say yes to something that ruins a challenge, you can say no without feeling like a bad DM who refuses to share the game with players. They have their part, you have yours.

Sometimes, your role as fan of the characters might call for a yes. I can think of three perfect occasions:

1. Say yes to inventive solutions.

When I started as a DM, I followed Gary Gygax’s model. I pitted my players against the most devious deathtraps I could invent. I would build in ways for the players to surmount the obstacles, but the players’ solutions rarely matched mine. The 6 or more brains across the table always proved more clever than me. Soon I stopped including solutions to the predicaments. The players across the table still escaped every impossible pinch. Their invention surprised me and I relished it.

I don’t recommend pitting players against impossible situations, but I do recommend learning to love an ingenious solution. Some DMs grow so attached to a “correct” solution to a predicament, that they reject their players’ ingenuity.

For more, see Player Skill Without Player Frustration.

2. Say yes to stunts and exploits that go outside the rules.

A few years ago I ran the Confrontation in Candlekeep delve at Gen Con. At the end, a dragon flies from Candlekeep tower to tower, table to table, exchanging attacks. At one stop, a character jumped atop the dragon and rode it table to table. After the event, the player giddily recounted the tale to anyone who would listen. He wasn’t alone. Players loved riding the dragon so much that DMs made it part of the adventure. Designer Teos Abadia remembers, “The result was great fun, a nice mechanic for players ending up at other tables, and some really spectacular falls!”

In Mike Shea’s post, A Collection of Awesome Events, he asks players to recount an awesome D&D moment, and then reaches a surprising conclusion: Players love it when they get to break the game. Riding the dragon steps outside the usual exchange of blows in a D&D battle. The Player’s Handbook offer no rules for it. But for players of Candlekeep, it created unforgettable moments.

When players suggest a bold or clever idea that ends a big encounter or that wrecks a major villain, I feel tempted to reject it. I worked to set the stage and a sudden end feels like a waste of effort. But for players, an ordinary battle can’t match the excitement of that one time when they broke the game.

3. Say yes to deeds that reveal a character’s unique qualities.

At a convention, I ran an adventure where a pack of wolves confronted the characters. One player tried to make friends with the beasts and I asked for an Animal Handling check.

The player showed his character sheet. “My background happens to be Raised by Wolves.”

“Turns out, you know these wolves.”

Obviously, if some unique quality grants an advantage that threatens to regularly upstage the other characters, you can still say yes, once. After that, the wolves the player meets might be rivals.

Winter Fantasy hosted 12 slots of Dungeons & Dragons and I played through them all

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, Winter Fantasy delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of $99 hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year, Winter Fantasy hosted 12, 4-hour slots of gaming and I played D&D through them all. This post covers some highlights.

An adventure’s written pages only step toward the final product: the play at the table. My dungeon masters and the other player shaped the adventures. We may have steered things in ways the authors never intended. Here, I write about my own experiences at the tables.

DDAL05-11 Forgotten Tradition

In Forgotten Tradition, PCs explore a time-lost museum revealing the history of giants and their kin. Some of this adventure’s success rests on the players’ interest in the museum’s lore. I learned a few things.

Our DM for Forgotten Tradition admitted to tinkering with the adventure’s final encounter. I have no idea what changes he made—or if they improved anything—but I liked the result. The final showdown pitted characters against a unique, single foe. The creature proved so dangerous that my group chose to run. And then our DM turned the escape into an entertaining conclusion.

DDAL05-14 Reeducation Parts 1 & 2

Reeducation lands the PCs on a mission to rescue Seer, their patron in many earlier adventures. Most of the adventure plays as a dungeon crawl. I like dungeon crawls and I liked the story behind this one, but its challenges seemed suited for characters nearing 10th level rather than characters around level 15. My cleric kept rolling low initiatives, so the fights finished before he could act. The pattern became a running gag. Our DM would shrug and remind us they we already played at the highest difficulty.

While my cleric missed turns, another player’s simulacrum took turns. Simulacrum lets you create a duplicate that doubles all your spells and half your hit points. One player gains an extra, second character in the adventure. Yes, I know DMs should scale adventures to challenge an extra character, but the addition doubles one player’s activity at the expense of the other players (me). I’m not sore, just grateful for a start on another post listing most annoying spells in D&D. The first attracted a surge of readers.

DDEP05-02 The Ark of the Mountains

D&D epics give players an experience they cannot match at home. Epics unite many tables of players together to fight for a common goal.

After last year’s Winter Fantasy, I raved about how author Will Doyle delivered the one of the best epics ever with Reclamation of Phlan.

This year, Will proved still he knows how to craft an epic. The Ark of the Mountains challenged players to seize control of a airship in time to use it to battle a giant’s flying war galley. I liked how the fantastic premise made the battle extraordinary, even for the a magical setting. Some past epics overreached in adding magic-as-technology to the Forgotten Realms. To me, fleets of airships dropping alchemical bombs belong in Eberron. This event kept a sense of wonder and the flavor of the Realms by making the airship a ancient artifact.

The Ark of the Mountains improved on Will’s last epic by adding improvements that made the adventure easier for DMs. Rather than the 50 maps in Reclamation of Phlan, Ark reused just a few locations.

At my table, we landed a DM without a killer instinct, so the encounters seemed too easy. What kind of basilisk fails to use its gaze attacks?

DDEP05-01 The Iron Baron

My convention group loves a deadly challenge, so some ranked The Iron Baron as the best session of the con. In this epic, characters raid a fire giant’s fortress. I loved the mix of challenging encounters with varied objectives. During my session, the players won the day, but during other sessions, the heroes fell short. Evidently, epics can be lost, and learning that pleased me. The threat of defeat gives villains credibility and makes the players’ wins meaningful.

Some players felt that The Iron Baron lacked interaction—that it felt like we neighbored tables that just happened to be running the same adventure. While events rarely rippled between tables, our head DM did a wonderful job of uniting the room. As our commander he rallied us; as the Iron Baron, he shouted threats, sometimes in the untranslated Giant.

In past years, conventions ran each epic just one time and the entire convention played at once. This year, the con repeated its epics throughout the convention for fewer tables. This change lifted a burden from dungeon masters. In the past, the convention drafted every DM to run the epic, forcing each DM to prepare an extra adventure, usually at two or three tiers. Now, DMs running the epic can focus on the event, and free the other DMs from extra preparation. Plus, the epics’ organizers face more manageable groups of players.

PHLAN2-1 Hatemaster, PHLAN2-2 Demagogue, PHLAN2-3 The Royal We, & PHLAN2-S

For Winter Fantasy’s D&D experience, Baldman Games premiered 4 adventures of con-created content. These adventures served an ambitious premise: The PCs find themselves protecting the three candidates running in an election to lead Phlan. Bane, god of tyranny, forces the PCs to prove whether any of the three merits the god’s support. In the first three adventures, the PCs enter dream worlds that reveal each candidates’ fondest wishes, realized in three dystopian versions of Phlan. I have never met such off-beat adventures in organized play. I appreciated how they broke from the more typical session.

Of the adventures, The Royal We stood out the most. To start, characters took the roles of commanders on the battlefield in mass combat using simplified Battlesystem rules. Some folks at my table enjoyed the experiment. For me, the scene just showed that if D&D world worked according to D&D rules, battles would look nothing like a medieval clash of arms. After our PCs spent a couple of rounds pounding enemy units with fireballs, they routed. The units represented by cardboard counters on the map barely clashed and never impacted the outcome.

However, the rest of The Royal We delivered. The plot moved to a knotty combat encounter that featured foes with clever synergies. Next, we solved an puzzle that revealed a candidate’s backstory while entertaining and challenging us. The final encounter combined a potential fight with another problem to solve.

The D&D Experience ended with a special adventure that pitted all the tables against a series of encounters where everyone battled to repel an invading fleet. The encounters felt solid, but the enemy spellcasters obviously never read my post on self defense. Characters built around the Sharpshooter feat dish out so much damage in tier-3 D&D play that no spellcaster can start in the open and stand much chance of casting a spell.

Like some past epics, this mini-epic left me wondering about magic and technology in the Forgotten Realms. The ships packed batteries of black-powder cannon.

DDAL05-18 Eye of Xxiphu Parts 1 & 2

As levels increase, characters gain abilities that let them fly, operate in underwater, and travel the planes. Adventures gain an epic feel by inviting players to use their extraordinary abilities. If PCs just wind up in dungeons blasting monsters—but with higher damage totals—then level 17 feels much like level 1. Eye of Xxiphu delivered an epic feel. Our choices took us into an underwater funhouse where author Merric Blackman seemed to channel a measure of White Plume Mountain with a dash of extra gonzo. I don’t know if any of it had a logical explanation, but I didn’t much mind.

When my convention group met the young DM who would run Eye of Xxiphu for us, I worried that running a 2-part, level-17-through-20 adventure for a bunch of old DMs might drag him in over his head. But he showed mastery over the rules and juggled difficult encounters featuring crowds of monsters.

This DM boasted a killer instinct. Someone in our group took a risk with something in the dungeon, and our DM said, “You’re dead. No save.” Fortunately, our party included two clerics, so death only slowed us a little. Welcome to tier 4.

The adventure climaxed in a set-piece battle with us mounted on dragons—or shapechanged into a dragon—chasing a giant airship as at raced to reach a cloud castle. An epic conclusion to an epic adventure. And to an epic convention.

Basic and Advanced—Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules (Part 2)

The Story of Basic and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Part 1: The time Dungeons & Dragons split into two games
Part 2: Dungeons & Dragons’ new audience versus its original rules
Part 3: Dungeon & Dragons goes two directions
Part 4: Dave Arneson takes a job at TSR
Part 5: Was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons a different game?
Part 6: Why Gary Gygax claimed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was a different game

In 1976, Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax realized that the appeal of D&D reached beyond wargamers to “almost anyone with an active imagination.” TSR’s first full-time employee, Tim Kask wrote, “Gary and I, and probably Gary and others, had often discussed how to broaden our market.” But unless players understood miniature wargaming with its inches, attack rolls, referees, and so on, they had little hope of understanding the original rules. D&D defied popular assumptions about games and fantasy. People wondered where to find the board, and how you won.

Despite being an avid wargamer, Kask struggled to learn D&D. “Had I not confidently announced that my club was going to have a go at this new game I was so enraptured with, I might not have spent three weeks trying to grasp enough of it to begin. And I had the benefit of having played it twice.”

Gygax and Kask saw D&D lure a new generation of players to wargaming conventions. Also, parents of potential players contacted TSR. Kask remembers, “We were starting to hear from parents that had bought the game as a result of their child’s cajolery, badgering or whining, only to find that it was too complex for their precious darlings to jump right in.”

The game’s supplements also caused confusion. After learning that a book called Greyhawk featured higher-level spells, I cajoled my parents into driving me to the store. Later, back at home, I learned of even more booklets.

Tunnels & Trolls

During D&D’s early years, D&D spread through the game table. Players started at Gen Con in Wisconsin or at Origins in Maryland. They brought the game to friends who taught their friends. But in the western states, the books reached folks before any gamers who had seen D&D played.

Far from Lake Geneva, confused but eager players created a market for games like D&D that featured clearer rules. In Different Worlds issue 1, Arizona gamer Ken St. Andre tells of reading the D&D rules in April 1975. He concluded that “as written the mechanics of play were nearly incomprehensible. I stood up and I vowed that I would create my own version.” By July, St. Andre began selling copies of Tunnels & Trolls.

California Neurologist J. Eric Holmes also found the original D&D rules incomprehensible. In Dragon issue 52, he writes, “There was no description of the use of the combat table. Magic spells were listed, but there was no mention of what we all now know is a vital aspect of the rules: that as the magic user says his spell, the words and gestures for it fade from his memory and he cannot say it again.”

Warlock in the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal #9 August 1975

To make sense of D&D, he found a set of rules circulating Los Angeles called Warlock, subtitled “How to Play D&D Without Playing D&D.” By using the combat table and spell point system from Warlock, Holmes could start playing.

Warlock came from a group of Caltech students. The game’s introduction tells a common story for the time. “When our group first started playing [D&D], our overall reaction was that it had great ideas, ‘but maybe we should change the combat system, clarify the magic, and redo the monsters.’”

In August 1975, the group published their new rules in a zine called the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal. The new rules took 33 pages. The introduction explains, “Warlock is not intended to replace D&D, nor is it intended to interfere with it. All we have tried to do is present a way of handling D&D without the contradictions and loopholes inherent in the original rules. We spent a considerable amount of time working out a solid combat system, a coherent magic system, and a more flexible way of handling monsters. We have been (rightly) accused of making D&D into a different game altogether, and we think a slightly better one.

“We recommend that you at least have access to a Dungeons & Dragons game, for the simple reason that we lack the space to go into some of the detail used in their three volumes. The D&D books are a good place to get ideas from. They are not a complete set of rules. We have completed them in our own.”

For more, see the Zenopus Archives post, “WARLOCK or how to play D&D without playing D&D.”

The threat of D&D offshoots like Warlock grabbed TSR’s attention. In the August 1976 issue of the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal, TSR published an ad for D&D urging readers to “TRY THE REAL THING!”

In December 1977, Gygax shared his feelings for such D&D “parodies” in the pages of The Dragon. “For most of these efforts TSR has only contempt. For saying so we are sometimes taken to task quite unjustly, but I suppose that is to be expected from disgruntled persons prevented from making a fast and easy buck from our labors—or from those persons responsible for cheap imitations whose work we rightly label as such.”

Gary understood that the fight against D&D’s imitators required a new set of rules.

Next: Campaigns, tournaments, and consistency

Dungeons & Dragons at the 2016 Origins Game Fair

For many gamers, the Origins Game Fair feels just the right size. Unlike Winter Fantasy, the convention offers diversions beyond non-stop Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder. Unlike Gen Con, you don’t face a city and a convention center crowded to the limit. In 2015, Gen Con brought 61,423 unique visitors to Indianapolis. Origins 2016 brought 15,479 unique visitors to the similarly-sized city of Columbus. At Origins, you can reserve a hotel room without winning a lottery and you can pay for it without winning a lottery.

I photographed this multi-table megadungeon at Origins 2015

Multi-table megadungeon photographed at Origins 2015

Origins features reasonably priced options in a connected food court. Gamers can also walk to downtown restaurants or cross the street to the North Market. This pavilion features vendors selling Mexican, Indian, Polish, barbecue, Italian, sushi, and many other types of food.

Origins started in 1975 as a convention sponsored by wargaming-giant Avalon Hill in its home town of Baltimore. In tribute to Avalon Hill and its town’s role in the birth of hobby gaming, the convention took the name Origins.

In Origins’ early years, it became the convention where the board- and miniature-gaming enthusiasts could find refuge from the the role-playing gamers who infested their hobby and who took over Gen Con. In 1988, when Origins and Gen Con combined into a single event for a year, those old wargamers grumbled.

Compared to Gen Con, Origins still tilts more toward board and miniature games. It shows fewer signs of fan culture like anime screenings, celebrity guests, and costumes.

In a recap, Andrew Smith writes, “If you’ve been at Gen Con when the Hall opens, you may be envisioning crowds of thousands of people waiting by the doors. Origins is quite different. We got in line a few minutes before opening and were probably behind 20-30 people in a single file line. It’s a completely different atmosphere.” Unlike Gen Con, board game demos spill out into a patchwork of territories outside the exhibit hall. This offers more hours to sample games, more space, and more affordable space for the manufacturers. “Demo lines are shorter and publishers just seem less busy and able to really sit and discuss their games.

This year, Wizards of the Coast made a strategic move to avoid Gen Con and feature Origins. Members of D&D team, including Mike Mearls, Chris Perkins, Chris Lindsay, and Trevor Kidd visited the con, while none will reach Gen Con.

As with Winter Fantasy and Gen Con, the folks at Baldman Games operated D&D organized play. The con launched a new program where conventions can commission Adventurers League adventures for their events. The organizers gain exclusive access to their content for six months before releasing it to the world at the Dungeon Masters Guild. Adventures in this new program will center on the Forgotten Realms Moonsea region.

The new Baldman Games adventures included a trilogy of adventures set in Melvaunt and four adventures set in Hillsfar, which were were reserved for D&D Experience players. On the Down with D&D podcast, the Bald Man, Dave Christ, talked about commissioning top authors to launch his exclusives. “With this being the first one, I wanted to set the bar really high. I wanted to kind of knock it out of the park.

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

CORE1-2 A Cog in the Wheel

The D&D experience pairs tables of six players with the same, top-rated DM for all four adventures. My table’s judge, Krishna Simonse, did an outstanding job accommodating our taste for combat challenges harder than the adventure’s strong level and our love of grids.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

In addition to the exclusive content, the convention premiered the final, season 4 Curse of Strahd adventures and the kickoff for the season 5 Storm King’s Thunder story.

For me, the con’s best moments came with the return of the D&D Open. I explained what made this classic so great in, “Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.”

The new Open’s all-star team of authors, Teos Abadia, Shawn Merwin, and Sean Molley captured all the challenge that made the old event such a blast.

In eight hours, the new Open aimed to combine the fun and community of a battle interactive, with a measure of the competition of the old tournaments.

Me in black at the D&D Open—despite our game face, we're having fun

My D&D Open team, with me in black, listening intently to the DM’s description of our next challenge.

Most of the event pitted players against an old-school funhouse adventure set in the megadungeon of Undermountain. Here the challenges proved as fun as any tournament I’ve played. I loved how so many locations wrapped combat encounters with puzzles to be solved. In a maze, PCs raced to gather clues while fleeing minotaurs and mind flayers. In castle ruins, PCs needed to find a way to turn catapults against a Death Tyrant. Best of all, the authors made the new Open hard—none of the namby-pamby, say-yes, everybody-is-a-star D&D in fashion now. Characters died. Our table saw one character Plane Shifted to certain doom and a second slain by a death ray. Save or die! Gary would be pleased.

For a climax, the tables joined forces against a diabolic machine constructed by Halaster, the mad architect of Undermountain.  Sean Molley showed astonishing ability to speak loudly enough to be heard from the far side of the ballroom while still taunting us in the Doofenshmirtz-like voice of Halaster.

I still wish for a more rigorous tournament with pregenerated characters, multiple rounds, and elite dungeon masters striving for consistent rulings and style. The D&D team sees that style of tournament as history. For most players, the new Open probably offers more fun. For an old grump like me, the Open still ranked as my best game of the year.

Wizards is already hatching plans for next year’s Open. Based on the event’s success, I suspect they will offer this year’s adventure to other conventions, but that remains undecided.

In all, Origins 2016 ran twice as many Adventurers League tables as in 2015.

The Origins Game Fair returns to Columbus on June 14-18th of 2017. See you there.

Next: Spells that fish for spoilers

1981: Adventures at My First Gen Con

In 1981, Dungeons & Dragons was surging in popularity, but you could not tell from my school. When my buddy Mike and I asked our friend Steve whether he wanted to join our next session, he declined. As if warning us of an unzipped fly or of some other mortifying social lapse, he confided, “Some people think that D&D isn’t cool.” Without the athletic prowess of the sportos and too mild for the freaks, Mike and I kept gaming.

The May 1981 issue of Dragon magazine previewed the upcoming Gen Con convention. “The 14th annual Gen Con gathering, to be held on Aug. 13-16, is larger in size and scope than any of its predecessors,” the magazine boasted. “E. Gary Gygax, creator of the AD&D game system, will make other appearances, such as being the central figure or one of the participants in one or more seminars concerning the D&D and AD&D games.”

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

1979 map of University of Wisconsin-Parkside from 40 Years of Gen Con

I lived an hour south of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the site of Gen Con. For four days in August, this building near Lake Geneva would became holy ground. I vowed to reach nerdvana.

In my high-school circle, no parents objected to loosing their teens on a convention an hour from home. Modern parents might fear child-snatching psychos; 80s parents might fear devil worship fostered by D&D. Our parents must have realized that fear of Satanists would keep the psychos away. One can’t be too careful.

I couldn’t drive, so I had to find a way to reach the convention. Mike’s dad volunteered to drive, but Mike had made a terrible first impression on my parents, who wanted me to find a better class of friends. Mike was a year younger and struck them as flighty. They forbade me from going alone with Mike.

Joel, a former member of our gaming group, also planned to go. Joel was old enough to drive, but also old enough not to want to spend a day with kids 1 and 2 years younger. If you thought playing D&D was uncool, imagine nearly being a senior and hanging out with children. No way. (Picture a geeky alternative to a John Hughes movie. The time fits well enough and the place matches. Hughes graduated from my high school. Legend says that the sweet Mrs. Hughes staffing the school store in 1981 was his mom.)

So Gen Con hung in the balance. A shaft of golden light pierced the clouds just north of home, possibly illuminating Saint Gary Gygax himself. So I fibbed and told my parents that Joel would drive, even as I agreed to ride with Mike.

Thursday and Friday, the plan worked. Mike and I gamed nonstop. Meanwhile, Joel spent the con shoplifting from the dealers in the exhibition hall. Mike felt as appalled as I did, demonstrating my parents’ poor judge of character in friends for their son.

The convention revealed aspects of the hobby I had never seen. Niche games. Sprawling miniature landscapes. Girls who liked D&D. It all seemed impossibly wonderful.

At Parkside, a wide, glass corridor stretched a quarter mile, linking the five buildings of the campus. Open-gaming tables lined the hall’s longer spans. Every scheduled role-playing session got its own classroom, so no one needed to shout over the clamor. Players circled their chairs around the largest desk. The lack of tables posed no problem, because in those days, everyone played in the theater of the mind.

All the event tickets hung from a big pegboard behind a counter. If you had keen eyes, you could browse the available tickets for a game you fancied.

We played Fez II and had a blast. In “Little-known D&D classics: Fez,” I told how the game transformed how I played D&D.

Titan game advertisement

Learn to play Titan from McAllister & Trampier – an advertisement from the program book

One of the designers of Titan recruited us to learn and play his game. I liked it enough to buy, but I lacked the ten bucks. So the demo led to a purchase thirty years later on ebay. Eventually, I learned that Dave Trampier, my favorite game artist, had co-designed Titan, but I suspect that co-designer Jason McAllister showed us the game.

We entered the AD&D Open tournament and played an adventure written by Frank Mentzer that would become I12 Egg of the Phoenix (1987).

ICE advertisement

Introducing Arms Law and now Spell Law

We ran a combat using Arms Law, the new system that boasted more realism than D&D. I remember how our duelists exhausted each other until the fight reached an impasse. I still took years to learn that realism doesn’t equal fun.

At Gen Con, you could find any game you wished to play, any players you needed to fill a table. D&D was cool. I had reached gaming bliss.

As for my ride the to con, my scheme imploded on Saturday night. Mike’s dad called my dad who repeated my lie: No one needed to drive north to pick up the boys, because Mike and I were riding home with Joel. Oblivious, Mike and I waited outside for his dad.

By midnight, all the gamers had left. A campus official warned us to leave the premises. We assured him that our ride would come soon.

(Young people: Once upon a time, we lacked cell phones. All plans needed to be arranged in advance. Folks grew accustomed to waiting. If Mike’s dad had left home as we thought, no one could have contacted him.)

So we waited in the dark and empty parking lot. Miles of dairy farms and cornfields surrounded us. No one lived near but cows and probably psychos.

After midnight, we tried to find a pay phone, but now all doors were locked. The nearest shabby, murder-hotel was miles away. Worse, we had been told to leave, so now we were trespassers.

By 1am, a maintenance man found us and achieved surprise. Some details may have grown in my memory, but our hands shot into the air as if he were a trigger-happy cop looking to beat up a couple of punks before slamming them in jail.

Instead, he mocked our skittishness and let Mike inside long enough to call. At 2am, Mike’s dad finally pulled into the lot. Forget Saint Gary, I now realize that the true saint was Larry, Mike’s dad.

In 1981, Gen Con reached an attendance of 5000. Dragon magazine speculated, “It’s logical to assume that at some point in its history, the Gen Con Game Convention and Trade Show will not get any larger.” So far, the convention defies logic: In 2015, Gen Con drew 61,423 gamers.

I still have the program to my first Gen Con. You can see it.

Gaming at the Winter Fantasy Convention

Imagine taking the Dungeons & Dragons track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, and dropping it into a convention of its own.

The Winter Fantasy convention has always been tied to Dungeons & Dragons. The convention started in 1977, in D&D’s hometown of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The co-dungeon master in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign, Rob Kuntz, organized the first Winter Fantasy. For five years, the convention even switched names to D&D Experience.

Winter Fantasy boasts as many D&D Adventurers League games as much larger conventions. Unlike Gen Con, players without advance tickets can always find a open seat. Unlike Gen Con, most tables seated six players rather than squeezing in a seventh.

dmdavid at winter fantasy

Teos “Alphastream” Abadia snapped this picture, which included me, on the far left, playing Hillsfar Reclaimed

The convention occupies a single exhibition hall in the Grand Wayne Convention Center.

With a return to the Winter Fantasy name, and free of the Wizards of the Coast corporate umbrella, the convention embraces other games.

Pathfinder Society

Pathfinder Society

Collectible card games

Collectible card games

board games

The same vast lending library of board games available at the big conventions

Who wants to visit Fort Wayne, Indiana in February, when the small city suffers snow and frigid temperatures? The slow season means that the cozy convention can afford a first-class facility. Rooms in the hotels connected to the convention center come with off-season prices.

Grand Wayne Convention Center

Grand Wayne Convention Center

The convention debuted a new D&D Epic adventure, Reclamation of Phlan, which followed nearly all the advice I gave in “How to forge the most epic multi-table role-playing event ever.” Players could choose missions. They could seek harder encounters in their quest for glory. The event fostered interactivity by letting parties both unlock areas of the map and win benefits for other tables. Did Will Doyle, the epic’s designer, read my post? Probably not, but he surely drew inspiration from some of the same Epics and Battle Interactives that informed me. The effort and imagination Will put into this adventure stunned me.

D&D Tables

D&D games

For me, this Epic’s design ranked with the best. Plus the game dominated the hall, so players could hear most of the announcements and see a projected display of the battle’s progress.

Reclamation of Phlan - librarians vs. devils

Reclamation of Phlan – librarians vs. devils

This adventure featured the shtick of having a boss monster tour tables, trading attacks at each stop. That mechanic still failed to win me over. The dragon never visited my table, and my players clearly felt robbed of a final battle that never reached them. They waited for a climax that never came, only hearing about it from a distant part of the room. Organized play leaders must have an outsize love of this gimmick because they tour with the dragon, so they catch all the fun and none of the letdown. To be fair, the mechanic probably works with from three to five tables per boss.

Winter Fantasy attracts D&D’s most enthusiastic fans. Players tend to bring their best characters to the Epic adventures, so the tables skew to higher tiers. Of more than 30 tables seated for Reclamation of Phlan, only two played the low tier. I ran an high-tier table, giving me my first chance to pit PCs against an archmage with spells like Time Stop. Luckily for characters, I did not pick the wizard’s spells.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace

Much of the convention, I ran Robert Adducci’s adventure Szith Morcaine Unbound. This adventure inspired my post on the value of random chance in a role-playing game session. The expedition proved as fun as I hoped, with lots of paths for the players. Among the passionate fans at Winter Fantasy, I met many who play adventures more than once, and Szith Morcaine Unbound offers variety for multiple runs. In the adventure, the fire giants and their allies did better job of challenging mid-tier characters than the foes in earlier adventures. Robert told me that as the Adventurers League team sees more play, they’ve become better at calibrating challenges for higher-level characters. As expected, the four-hour convention slot required me to steer some of the encounter rolls to finish on time. In a looser setting, the adventure offers enough options for twice the game.

My version of the Forge of Surtr

Dengor faces a shapechanged druid in the Forge of Surtr. (I changed maps.)

At Gen Con, players who chose the D&D Experience track felt the extra hundred dollars they spent gained little more than a table of six rather than seven. The organizers heard the complaints and strove for a more premium experience. This time, my friends in the Experience liked extra perks such as sessions run by Adventurers League administrators and designer Mike Mearls. John “Radiating Gnome” Jones shared his impressions with me. “The author-only adventures we played were all awesome—challenging, a little different, and playing with the adventure’s writer is a real treat. We had great DMs for all of our D&D Experience games.

It was also nice to not have to worry about mustering. We had an assigned table for the whole weekend and always knew where we would be playing. We had access to a steady supply of bottled water and snacks, and could take advantage of a volunteer to help coordinate food delivery if we wanted it. (We never used that service, but saw others doing it.)

That’s all for Winter Fantasy 2016. I hope to see you all there next year.