Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Gaming with Ken St. Andre at Gen Con

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that some of my first gaming experiences were running "solo" runs of characters through The Keep on the Borderlands. These sessions amounted to me rolling up 5 or 6 D&D characters, covering up the DM map of the Caves of Chaos to hide parts of the map my characters couldn't see, and resolving the mechanics as much as possible.

I had a good time playing this way, though it was nowhere near as fun as playing with friends, and the temptation to "cheat" was surprisingly small. This is likely due to two or three factors. First, I wasn't very personally vested in the personality of any given character. They were ciphers to me. They were about as real as your average RTS "trooper." Second, playing a dungeon solo made the game essentially a logic puzzle with a relatively simple solution -- only the "mechanics" made things difficult. Third, there was very little reward for cheating and the emotional reward for succeeding without cheating outweighed the reward for cheating. Besides, the punishment for failure was making more characters who could then be run through the adventure. It was a fun solitary activity for someone who had friends, but very few who played role playing games.

While I enjoyed running these solitary adventures, there did seem to be something lacking. They were logic puzzles without an "antagonist." In a normal logic puzzle it's your mind against that of the puzzle's creator (with only one solution), but in these solitary runs there were many possible solutions and there didn't feel like there were any "stakes" to the playing. Given enough time using modules written for groups as solo endeavors, I would have likely stopped gaming altogether.

Then I met Mark Williams. Mark had come to Reno from Chicago and he and I shared a lot of interests. One of these interests was role playing games. We became fast friends, but friends who began to compete with each other regarding who could find the next cool thing. Mark was the first to discover Michael Moorcock. I was the first to discover the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks -- which looked to be the ultimate solution to the solo game experience. (Point of fact, I still highly recommend them.) Then Mark discovered something "better." He discovered the Tunnels and Trolls role playing game which supported both group and solo play, and had some very well designed solo adventures. The humor in the game appealed to our middle school minds -- I still find it appealing -- and the adventures were more "adult" than those in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, which made them perfect young boys amped up on teenage hormones.




These solo adventures did vary in quality, but there were a couple that stand out as some of the greatest modules ever written -- City of Terrors, Arena of Khazan, Overkill, and Sewers of Oblivion provided me with hours and hours of enjoyment. What was more, when I played Arena of Khazan it felt like I was playing against someone -- someone with a cruel and darkly humorous mind. The author, Ken St. Andre, killed scores of my characters as I attempted to explore the stories he drafted for players like me. I loved every minute of it. Often "losing" in a Ken St. Andre, or Michael Stackpole, written adventure was more fun than "winning." They were great fun and they are very much responsible for my love of the gaming hobby, as they embody one of the things that the hobby is about -- creating communities across distances.

I had always wanted to game in a "face to face" experience with Ken St. Andre as my game master. I had imagined the dozens of devious devices he would use to bring about my characters' demise. At this year's Gen Con, I finally got the chance when Ken set up a quick pick up game on the floor of the Exhibit hall while he was taking a break from his hard work at the Flying Buffalo booth.

My friend Eric and I, along with a couple of other eager players, sat down with Ken for a brief and fun filled adventure. Typical of a St. Andre adventure, the plot was straightforward and to the point. A wizard had summoned a group of "heroes" from Earth's famous GenCon to help him reacquire the source of his magic. We had only our wits to guide us as we ventured into a goblin lair to help this mysterious magic man acquire an item of great power. Personally, I question how eager we were to help a man we knew nothing about, but as gamers we were used to making snap decisions based on Fantasy tropes "in character." Why not do them ourselves.

Our group did quite well for some time, carefully navigating a couple of Ken's tempting traps. It looked like we all were going to actually live through the adventure. Then came the final puzzle. Ah yes, the final puzzle. It was so obvious, but I knew better than to assume the obvious. Ken had killed me -- in his printed modules -- for assuming the obvious in the past. There had to be some trick, and so our party numbers quickly dwindled as we engaged the puzzle. Eric's character died, a young player's character died, my character died. Then someone assumed the obvious and solved the puzzle.

It was great fun, with a great group of players -- for the most part. There was one player who had the common gamer "I want to be the best and will use the rules however I can to maximize potential for success" attitude. Didn't he know that he was playing Tunnels and Trolls? This game is about whimsy and fun, not about "success." He took things far too seriously, and play suffered briefly for his sternness -- only briefly. By the end, I think he was actually catching on.

Some day I'll do a statistical analysis to show how the rules of T&T actually discourage power gaming, but that is for another time. Let's just say that playing in a Ken St. Andre written/run game is like adventuring in an L. Sprague DeCamp "Enchanter" Story and not like adventuring in a world of Tolkien, Moorcock, or Howard. Fun and humor are the first rules, winning and "drama" are for other writers.

My brief experience with Ken was everything I hoped that it would be and it recaptured the joy that the solo adventures had brought me as a young man. I was simultaneously experiencing fun and nostalgia at the same time, quite like that a fan would experience when his/her childhood baseball team wins the World Series. I both enjoyed the moment, and the memories it brought to mind.

It's rare that we get to thank those who have created the games, movies, books, or shows that we have enjoyed in a personal way. We are often limited to the formal "signing" booth or some other constructed moment that may or may not be remembered by the creator. I'd like to take this time to thank Ken for a great time, both at GenCon and 20 years ago.
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