Table top roleplaying games in general, and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, represent my most beloved past time. There are lots of reasons for this, from the creativity involved to the social aspects to simple nostalgia. Within the scope of TTRPGs, though, there is one element which I love most: running games for others, or Game Mastering as it is generally known (Dungeon Mastering when talking specifically of D&D).
The art of Game Mastering is equal parts creation (coming up with plots, settings, characters and conflicts) and improvisation (reacting to both the responses of the players and the rolls of the dice) with a side of personnel management (players don’t always work smoothly together) and customer support (nor does the game itself always work as intended). It is a challenging and rewarding experience that lets me flex my creative muscles and receive immediate feedback in a way that other creative exercises, like writing, do not. In short, it’s fun — often exhausting fun, but fun just the same.
Broadly speaking, GMing comes in two flavors. The usual kind is you and a group of friends that get together at least somewhat regularly and play an ongoing game (called a campaign). You know everyone at the table and their preferences — what they like, what they dislike and what they are looking for in the gaming experience. Because these are your friends and it is an ongoing activity, if problems arise you can discuss them and find solutions that work over the long term. And make no mistake, like any activity involving multiple people, problems will arise, from scheduling conflicts to interpersonal disputes and misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The other sort of GMing involves groups of strangers coming together for individual, short term play. It can be a game day at a store, an organized play event, or, more commonly, a scheduled slot at a game convention. Up to six or eight people who most likely do not know each other (you might get two or three people who regularly play together signing up together for such an event, but rarely a whole table full) sit down with a GM they also most likely do not know, to play a game they either aren’t familiar with (it is common to try out new games at conventions) or perhaps are masters of (some people only play one game and do so with an almost religious zeal), all in a noisy room under a time limit and the added stress of the players having paid good money to be there. Convention GMing is difficult and stressful and not for everyone, but I love it.
Two Great Tastes…
As conventions I regularly attend and run games at approach (Carnage in Killington, Vermont, and TotalCon in Mansfield, Massachusetts) and at the same time I have chosen to go “all in” with the new Dungeons and Dragons, I realized I want to try something new: I want to mix some of the elements of the ongoing game into the experience of running a convention game. When players and GMs think about the game beyond the immediate moment at the table, they make different, interesting decisions (either because they are considering consequences or laying groundwork in a way they wouldn’t when they know there is no follow up, no tomorrow as it were). By hopefully adding that level of consequence, that tomorrow, from an ongoing game into a convention game, I hope to produce a richer, more fun experience for all involved. To make that happen, my plan is simple — at least, it sounds simple on the surface:
I am going to run the same adventure continuously throughout the duration of the convention. Now, many convention adventures have multiple slots, where Part One of the adventure might be played on Friday, Part Two on Saturday and the finale on Sunday morning before everyone drives home. That’s not quite what I mean. Instead of an adventure with a multi-part plot, I am going to create an environment with a lot to do, a “sandbox” full of enough locations, characters, monsters and treasures to entertain multiple groups of players over 16 or 20 hours of play. That sandbox is called The Valley of Tombs:
“For thousands of years, the Valley served as the resting place for tribal chiefs and god-emperors alike, for in it was a magic that promised great reward in the afterlife. But a calamity centuries ago cut off the valley from the greater world and its location was lost. Only a few years ago, the Valley was rediscovered and now hungry adventurers and crypt raiders have descended upon the valley in search of lost lore and buried treasure. But not everything rests in peace in the Valley of Tombs. Can your heroes overcome its insidious perils as well as rival tomb raiders, and still find fortune and fame?”
Players can sit in on as many slots as they like, keeping their characters and tracking treasure won, enemies overcome and experience gained. But even if no players play for more than one slot, continuity will remain — whatever players do in the slot before remains done in the following slots. A player updated map and a player written journal that stays at the table will ensure the next slot’s adventurers know what came before. My hope is that some players choose to play multiple sessions and others who only play one session look at the map and journal and choose to go after, for example, a treasure that was hinted at but not found by an earlier group or to take out a monster or villain that killed a previous adventuring party.
I signed up for GenCon 2014 too late to submit any events. Even so, I plan on planting myself at an open gaming table with the Valley of Tombs — or some pieces of it anyway — to work through some of the concepts and ideas. I am hoping that there will be enough demand for D&D 5th Edition play that I’ll be able to fill a table a couple of times. After GenCon, I will use what I learned there to craft the Valley in full for Carnage and run a few test sessions with my local game groups. Carnage will be the first full “beta” test at a convention and should help me work out the bugs for TotalCon, where I plan to dedicate my entire time at the convention to running The Valley. Assuming it goes well and everything works as intended, I hope to be able to keep honing and running it into next con season, perhaps even at GenCon 2015.
Over the course of the development and testing process, I will be talking about the Valley of Tombs here on occasion, so stay tuned!