Despite the windstorm and occasional torrents of rain, I made it safely home from my journey to the Northlands. That drive gets a tiny bit longer each time I do it, but the reward is always worth the trip. This time was no exception. Before I get down to recapping the weekend’s events, I want to again extend my thanks to Jim, Joe, Melissa, and Ralph for getting together for a game, feeding me oh so very well, and making me feel a little bit like a rock star.
As I posted on Friday, the main event of the weekend was me getting a chance to experience my own dungeon at the pointy end of the stick for a change. As commentator Chris pointed out, it’s an exercise that every designer should go through at least once. It’s a much different experience than play testing it with you at the helm.
For one thing, it’s an obvious test of keeping one’s mouth shut in order to preserve the mystery for the other players. I decided prior to playing that I would merely follow the other players as to what to investigate, what to poke or prod, and what doors to kick in. Over the course of the session, I regularly chose to search all the places that didn’t contain secrets or treasure (even managing to discover a mysterious key that the referee had placed into his own version of Stonehell), letting everyone else discover the loot that the dungeon conceals in its curious crevices. I was really proud of this group and, if I didn’t express it adequately enough on Saturday night, I was very impressed with everybody’s play style. Even with my self-imposed silence, the group managed to find all the hidden goodies in the rooms that we chose to explore. However, I am mortal flesh and did engage in one spectacular piece of metagaming just prior to the session’s end. I’ll get to that in a moment.
Although I did get a good feel as to how the dungeon flows from the players’ end, I was reminded that every adventure is a highly subjective event whose performance for good or ill relies on not only the referee but the players and the rules themselves. It was because of this that I found some difficulty evaluating the dungeon from the other side of the screen, mostly because we weren’t using any version of D&D rules—or any other published rulebook for that matter.
Upstate, you see, they’re playing something that got cooked up during more than a year’s worth of basement game sessions. I’m not even sure if there’s a name for the rules these guys are using. Some portions of it are vaguely recognizable, such as the percentile-based resolution system that kind of, sort of, looks like the Basic Role-Playing rules if you stand on your head and look at it cross-eyed, or the random character background table which was cribbed from Traveller. But most of it evolved in its own unique gaming environment, which makes going into it cold a little daunting. Even with roughly thirty years of gaming experience under my belt, I felt like a novice when confronted with the system—which was a good thing. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that way about a game.
Despite the challenge to the newcomer, I’ve got to say that this system works for these folks. Even though most of the rules are based on rolling under an average of two attributes and thus employed a bit more math that the standard +1/-1 modifiers, they knew the system cold and were able to banter the nuances of the rules back and forth the same way most grognards can discourse on the finer points of D&D. It’s obviously a system they’re comfortable with despite (or probably because of) the fact that it’s one in a constant state of flux and refinement. Each new player adds something to this rules and I hope I did so as well (in the form of the spell, Milo’s Mighty Mackerel—not just a feast but also a weapon). We in the old school renaissance like to go on about how we’re making the game our own again—these folks are making their own game period. I heartily applaud their efforts and look forward to sitting in with them again sometime.
Alas, our session inevitably drew to a close. With an early start home the next morning and a half-hour’s drive through rural back roads to get back to my brother’s place, we packed it in at 10:30 as the party stood before a closed door. It was at this moment that I broke my own rule about metagaming. Since fate guided us to this specific location in the dungeon and our time was at an end anyway, the session ended with Milo, my character, saying, “Want to see something neat?” He then reached over, twisted a brick in the wall, and revealed the secret door leading down to level three of the dungeon. I couldn’t help myself. Consider it a gift from the mysterious power behind Stonehell Dungeon as a reward for an excellent game session.