the groop played stone age bachelor pad games

My brother Allan's official, scheduled con game started at 8 PM. This was only the second year that he'd run an official, open-to-strangers game. Like last year, he's running a Torg game; he feels that his heavy modifications to the Dungeons & Dragons engine over fifteen years would render it unrecognisable to outside players or unconscionable to purists. (It's just occurred to me how offline RPGs are similar to first-person shooters on PCs - they all have an engine that handles the mechanics of representing the world and the way things work, but the world itself is fairly independent of that engine and can be scrapped or modified more easily. The unique thing about paper RPGs is that their engines - their rule systems - are as easy to hack as their fictional game worlds.)

Torg's world is much more protean and flexible than nearly all other published gaming systems, providing a context for Kung Fu fighters, spacemen and sword-and-sorcery noblewomen to participate in the same story without it ending up completely silly. Also, Allan hasn't been playing with the engine long enough for it to change too much. Last year's game simply took a motley crew of characters on a chase around a near-future Bay Area, incorporating Allan's photos of the abandoned Sears parking garage on Telegraph in Oakland, and some ghost malls in Concord. This year's game was more focused, concentrating on just one of the Torg world's intermingled milieus: the Nile Empire. Rich enough to support an entire game on its own, "Nile" (as it's known for short) takes the mad scientists, strapping heroes and bad dialogue of '30's pulp serials and transplants them to Egypt, with all the theological background that that implies.

I spent the evening popping in and out of Allan's game while I continued scoping the con. I don't really remember what I did at the rest of the con in the evening, but it certainly didn't shut down. The dealers room was closed and the day-trippers had gone home, maybe, but this was peak hour in the open gaming rooms. A lot goes on in there, a lot of it surprisingly traditional given the general obscurity of the selections that the dealers' room presents. Yes, plenty of people still play plain ol' garden-variety D&D (even those embarrassing campaign-world projects like Planescape and Spelljammer, from back when TSR started to notice the ground crumbling underneath it and scrambled for any branch it could reach). For all the activity, I didn't really see anything that interested me enough to approach anyone for a pickup game. It takes a lot of interest for me to overcome the old fears of social awkwardness and try to insinuate myself into a game. In fact, I'm not sure that I've ever actually joined an open game, except for once when I was 12 and I joined a session of the Ghostbusters roleplaying game, doing what I always did in RPGs at that point: barely participating, but doing so with great attention. I eventually drifted back upstairs to keep Allan's wife Cheryl busy by playing Button Men with her.

The group that wound up in Allan's game was entirely composed of people he already games with, or people who know those people. The group joked about how they should thank the con staff for the room and then just take the game home. On the left we have Drew and Shannon, whom Allan met when they joined last year's con game. Last year I was very surprised to see them; they were part of my epiphany about the new blood that's entering the field despite its current anemia. They aren't Goths, they aren't geeks... they're just these kids from the Livermore valley somewhere, who chain-smoke and perform in school musicals and... play D&D. Drew comes at it from an acting perspective; he's into voice and improvisational interaction. Shannon kind of scares everyone with her energy, and by saying "cunt" a lot. Well, "a lot" is relative, I guess. They add a lot of fun to the game. To their left, at the back of the table, is Brian, who was playing his pre-established character, "the Mantis Johnny Wong." Brian has a lot of characters like this, and his stoic demeanor makes it all the more hysterical when he plays them.

Continuing counter-clockwise, the guy with the big hair there is Henry, who's been part of Allan's regular gaming group for a couple of years on and off. In this game, things got tense for a little while - well, either tense or bone-crushingly boring, depending on how invested you were, I suppose - when Henry decided to "roleplay his character accurately." His character was the Torg game world's equivalent of a fundamentalist Christian (plus cybernetics and a broadsword). In the middle of a siege on the adventuring group's night camp, Henry's character witnessed Drew's Brooklyn-accented character performing some kind of spell or ritual, decided it was Satanic, and immediately pulled a sword on him, demanding that he repent his sins or die. It was mesmerizing: the entire adventure ground to a halt as everyone stopped whatever they were doing and had to listen to Drew negotiate for his character's life, trying every desperate ploy of pseudo-Christian reasoning he could conjure, all in a fake New Yawk accent. They played it out in full, via conversation, while Allan did his best to manage the conflict so and remind the other members of the party that they were still being attacked by bloodthirsty outlaws. Allan told me later, "Once Henry made that move, I decided, 'Okay; I am perfectly willing to let this game go straight to hell. That's never happened to me at a convention before, so I'm willing to see what it's like.' " Drew and Henry's big spat went on for a good 20 minutes or so, some of the other players eventually trying to intervene and remind Henry (well, to remind Henry's character) that he willingly joined a party of heathens for a greater cause. Henry is normally a very normal guy for a gamer, not a religious nut or anything, although his stubbornness comes out in his refusal to try any of the dopey little games I try to introduce. He seems happy to sit and watch when the rest of us have Cheapass nights.

The people over on the right are friends of Drew and Shannon, whose names I unfortunately neglected to write down. I'm sounding like a broken record here, but come on: two attractive young women, gaming! In one room! And a bunch of young guys who aren't pimply-faced, overweight, or noticeably stunted socially! I sat and watched them for a good long time, poaching their snacks (even partaking of Doritos and Pepsi, the sacraments of the gaming religion). It's really heartening to see people doing this that don't match society's stereotype of the people who do this. In fact, I wonder if it's too heartening; if seeing the skinny, well-rounded, normal folks as the saviours of the gaming world isn't a kind of self-betrayal. (But then I turn right back around and wonder if that reaction isn't some stupid "no sellout" idea, itself a sure sign of fulminating, rabid geekhood.)

Anyway, not pictured is Cheryl, Allan's wife, who was mostly sitting back behind Allan on the floor and trying not to get too bored. I invited her over to the side to play Button Men and we had to interrupt Allan's game to borrow a bunch of dice. Button Men is a good game - I'm constantly wondering if it isn't really a "solved" game, in which certain characters will beat certain other characters 90 percent of the time, and players of roughly equal skill will always have games 100 percent ruled by the luck of the dice. But I keep playing it anyway for some reason, maybe just to admire its ingenuity. In our extended session, Cheryl and I decided that the character Avis tended to kick ass over all others (due to this we call her Mavis, or "Ma Bell") but I don't think that's really stood up to further experimentation. So we did that for a while, and had a high old time. I left at around 11:15.

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text and drawings © copyright 1999 Mike Sugarbaker