Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Readers' Questions - The Five Greatest Games I Have *** Ever *** Run

Chirine answers the mail...
Reader and commentator Tim Knight has asked a few questions about Saturday's game, and I thought I'd better do a full post in order to give him a proper answer...

Thank you (and thank you for pointing out the Egyptian miniatures IndieGoGo, I've hopped onboard in the final hours). Not being that 'au fait' with Tekumel, can you explain a bit more about the background to the scenario and what roles the players took?

You're welcome!

The Tekumel world-setting is the creation of Prof. M. A. R. Barker, who was persuaded by Dave Arneson to publish a role-playing game set in his world waaaaay back in 1975.  The professor had been working on and writing about Tekumel since the late 1940s, and there is a wealth of information and artwork about the place - a lot of it in my basement! The Professor's RPG, "Empire of the Petal Throne", was one of the very early products of a small company called "TSR"... :)

The world-setting takes place in our far future; it's "Sword and Planet Romance", rather then 'classic fantasy' or even 'classic science-fiction'. Star-faring humans and their non-human allies have been trapped on a distant world for a very long time, and civilization has taken a bit of a slide. Humans are not at the top of the food chain on Tekumel.

I started playing in the Professor's game sessions back in 1976, and I've been at it ever since. Chirine ba Kal is my player-character and 'alter-ego'; that's him (as a 25mm miniature, done in 1976) in the photo, along with his deck chair.

Chirine and his extended family 'retired' to the distant Nymesel Islands to sit out the recent civil war in their home country, and had been having a very nice - and quiet! - vacation when several boatloads of mercenaries showed up escorting some diplomats who wanted to see what Chirine and the family thought about their civil war, and where he stood in relation to the various factions that they represented. It turned out that there was a traitor in their midst, who hatched a plot to wreck the family's vacation. The game was the start of the plot, and the local reaction to it.

Like all my 'Braunstien'- style games, there were multiple 'sides', each with differing goals and objectives. There was Chirine's little navy (of one ship and crew), the local inhabitants of the town, and three factions of mercenaries. I handed out written sheets with all this at the start of the game - none of the players knew in advance of the game what they would be playing.

On the practical side, how did you handle the 'movement in the dark'?

I announced that all movement for everyone - since they were all humans and pretty much the same - would be up to six inches per turn, and then handed all the players six-inch rulers. I have the players roll for their turn to move, and each player moves in turn; all movement is considered to happen at the same time, and the dice rolls manage to simulate this pretty well.

I dimmed the lights during movement, so all the players could really see where the lights in the windows of the buildings and what their 'torches' and 'lanterns' illuminated. None of the players knew who was playing whom; all they knew was that 'their people' all had one particular color of lantern.

The chaos was a joy to behold.

Besides the brilliant use of the IKEA lights and the tea-lights (on my shopping list for our next visit to IKEA!), what made this the best game you've run in 40 years? I would imagine, from what I've read on your site, that the bar was quite high already ;-)

(Quick Note: The 'SOLVINDEN' light domes are a seasonal item at IKEA, and probably won't be around until later this year. Buy 'em as soon as you see 'em; each store gets relatively few of them, and they go really fast. The tea lights seem to be widely available; I have them from a variety of places that sell party supplies and crafts stuff.)

Yes, I'd say that the bar was set very high. Very, very high, actually:

The Five Greatest Games I Have Ever Run:

5. "Rescuing Kaitara" - 2005

The game group meets on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, so I usually have a two-week cycle time to build things for the games. In this case, one of the players had been abducted, and the rest of them gave chase to rescue her; when their boat caught up with the one the bad guys were on, I stopped the game session and said we'd play out the rescue during the next game session in two weeks. The group was not very pleased.

Until the next game session, that is. I had built the two ships and done everything in miniature, and it came as a total surprise for the players when they walked into the game room. They were simply gob-smacked, and then took off on a romp of a game where there was derring-do and swashbuckling all over the decks. It was awesome.

4. "Captain Harchar vs. The Hlyss Nest-ship" - 2010

We had originally played this out during our time with Prof. Barker, along about 1979. It was pretty scarey - humans are not at the top of the food chain, remember. The insectoid Hlyss use humans as living incubators for their larvae, which is Not A Good Thing. We did this game again in miniature in 2010 as a memorial for Dave Arneson, who had played the rascally Captain Harchar in the professor's game for years to such memorable effect.

Dave's beloved daughter Malia brought her entire family to watch the mayhem, and I would up telling her son - Dave's grandson - all about the adventures of Captain Harchar. After I finally ran down, the young man turned to his mom, and asked "When I grow up, can I be a swashbuckling buccaneer like Grandpa?"

I melted.

3. "Night Battle Off Savo Island - 1979

"Clear for Action" was our preferred set of rules for WWII naval games, and this one was set in the South Pacific in the early days of the Guadalcanal campaign. The rules have provisions for searchlights and starshells, and I used penlights and turned off the lights. Hilarity ensued, as the IJNS "Sushikaze" steamed into her own minefield at 23 knots, the Imperial Army's shore battery opened up on her (thinking she was an American cruiser), and the American PT boats ran aground on the reefs; they had to be pulled off by the British minesweepers. And, no matter how many torpedoes they fired, the American PTs just could not sink Savo Island; those islands are tough, and took multiple torpedo hits without sinking!

We laughed until we cried.

2. "The Great Mos Eisley Spaceport Raid" - 1978

The biggest and most infamous 'Braunstein'- style game I have ever run. The playing area was thirty feet by thirty feet, and there were over two hundred figures divided into over a dozen factions. It was "Star Wars, Episode IV" in miniature, with the exact same plot and characters. It was also a "who's who" of the early days of the Twin Cities game scene - Dave Arneson played Jabba the Hutt, Dave Wesley and Ross Maker his henchbeings Greedo and Boba Fett (I had inside information from some  guy named George Lucas), Fred Funk as the Imperial ("Darth vader is my hero!") Stormtroopers, Mike Mornard as Han Solo, and so on. (There was no typecasting. No, really. I would never, ever do anything like that. Honestly.)

Six hours of utter pandemonium and mayhem erupted as everyone bribed, cajoled, shot at, robbed, stole, and cheated each other. A normal day in Mos Eisley, really...

1. "Then Darkness Fell" - 2014

None of the players had any idea what I had come up with for a game, and I didn't tell them. I had them pick their sheets for their factions, and told them not to open them yet; then, I gave my 'backstory' about the scenario, while switching on all the little tea lights in the buildings - these are dim, and didn't show up under the bright track lights in the game room. At the end of my introduction, I told the players to look at their sheets while I dimmed the room lights - the gasps of sheer awe at the magical scene made my day, and then the players had to get right into character as they had to read their sheets by 'lantern' light...

The looks on their faces made it all worthwhile. The game itself was equally wonderful, as people stumbled over each other and their own people in the dark. (The little buffet I'd set out was nice, too!)

 We laughed all day. It was, simply, grand.