Last summer, I had a chat with the Reading team about whether we wanted to enter the Student Nationals again. It would be our tenth event – if you include 2013 where we spent the whole weekend in our hotel with food poisoning instead of at the gaming table. Sue, one half of the team, decided that 2013 was the last and that she really wasn’t interested in going again.
So I decided to attend as a volunteer GM for D&D and emailed the organisers in September. They were disappointed that Reading wouldn’t be taking part (which made me smile) but were very happy to take me up on my offer (which also made me smile).
In October, I was sent the “GMs’ Pack” and waited for something to happen. I chased in December and was told that everything was in hand. “Must spend time during the Christmas holidays to write some content”, I thought. “Ho, ho, ho,” commented Santa in a decidedly more sarcastic than jolly tone. Wasn’t until mid-January that I eventually powered up a word processor. This was also the point when, sign-up deadline passed, that the other half of the Reading decided that they would like to go…
At the end of January, an email came round letting me know who the other 3 GMs were and encouraging us to get discussing plots, systems and characters with the intention of having different sets of players each day (rather than a single 2-day game with the same people). I shared with them that my game would be a crossover of Morris dancing and the world descending into apocalyptic madness. My colleagues confirmed that I would not have to worry about there being any plot overlap which put my mind at rest. It would have been awful if I had started the Sunday session only to be told by the players that they had already played in something similar the previous day.
By mid-February – two months to go – all I had were some notes cobbled together about medieval farming practices and the plans of the abbey of Saint Gall taken from Wikipedia. Things are not going well. If I’m to have any play-testing done on the game, the development would have to step up a gear or two.
Three weeks passed. It’s early March and I now have a felt tip-drawn map of the fictional country the adventure would be set in and some pirated source materials. [[10 points for anyone able to recognise which part of the world I simply traced over the map of. It’s probably a nice place To Go to.]]
This period in my work was the desperately-searching-the-Internet-for-really-useful-random-thing-generators phase. I needed town names with their industries, characters with all their background and statistics, pub names, beer names, and so on. Making them up on my own would have been hard work and, as I found out, not as efficient as clicking a button 50 times until something really cool turned up.
I was starting to realise that I needed to make good use of the spare time left to me. So I looked at the calendar. Monday – Cafe Scientifique; Tuesday – Wolves match; Thursday – Sceptics in the Pub; Friday to following Monday – holiday weekend with Sue. So, just Wednesday then… How about the week after? Two comedy gigs and Sue’s birthday in the run-up to the Nationals. It was if I was deliberately making life hard for myself.
Into April I had a handful of mini encounters and curiosities. Take the 500 foot high singing polycephalic snail with a tavern on its back [[as fabulously depicted by Sue]]. In my head I could picture this thing as if it was real enough to touch.
Or the endless conga that you could join but never leave as it danced it’s way rhythmically through an endless series of mundane and exotic rooms.
Nothing, though, really dropped onto the paper as something I could regard as a backbone to the whole thing. I hadn’t even worked out the mechanics for the dance competition! The week of the Nationals I decided to take an extra day off work to try and save the situation. I was shocked to find that extra time disappeared in character generation and preparation alone. How can half a dozen characters take so long to build? The problem was that I wanted them to be special and different even though they would only be used for six hours. When I used to write up characters for the games I played in, it would be easy to lose yourself browsing through the dozens of source books for ideas. I had tried to speed things up by looking online for cheat sheets on how to make a powerful monk or scout or whatever but that just ended up with me going “oh, that’s interesting, I must read further…” as the sun slowly set.
And then it was Friday and time to head north for deepest Leicestershire. The thin pile of paper I stuffed into my bag just looked inadequate. As Sue drove, I sat with pad and pen jotting down ideas and thoughts. At the hotel, I spread all my paperwork around the room and designed jig scoring systems whilst my wife went out shopping. Even at the GM’s meeting that evening, part of me was not on the discussions at hand but instead working out how to bring divine destruction to Etrini.
In the morning I felt queasy at breakfast time and had to force down cereal and a small fried breakfast. This was a buffet meal I’d paid for so my plate should have been heaving with dead pig, eggs and other components of a Full English. My attention to the food was reminiscent of what you’d expect after a serious night’s drinking and associated hangover. I was not feeling right. Cue imagined scene between myself and friendly Premier Inn staff:
FPIS: Good morning, sir. And how are we today?
Me: Better get a bucket. I’m gonna throw up.
((with obvious thanks to the Python team.))
Soon we were on the bus and off to Oadby Student Village. Not the Student Union buildings a short distance from the hotel we’d carefully booked in the centre of town but instead a complex of buildings a few miles down the A6. Lesson learnt – check EXACTLY where an event is. Here’s one of the lovely-looking buildings allocated to role-players:
The organisers had a good plan – allocate a group of players to a room for the weekend and then rotate the GMs each day. So much easier to move a few dozen GMs than a few hundred players.
So, shortly after a reasonably chaotic opening ceremony, I had my half-dozen gamers and sat them down under the watchful eye(s) of my mascot.
First step was to dish out the characters. I’d printed out the character class information and laminated the sheets so that no-one needed to look in a handbook to understand the various feats and abilities. This turned out to be a good idea as I was the only person with a Player’s Handbook so there was no having to share it round (except for the druid who needed to make a spell list). Next was deciding sex and name of their chosen character – for some the latter was really hard to do but we got there in the end. Examples:
- Tibboh the Halfling swashbuckler ((geddit?))
- Flavius Octavius the druid (because of the Romans who fought druids; not sure about the appropriateness of that connection)
- Bertha the barbarian (Saturday)
- Glenda the barbarian (Sunday)
I explained the concept that they were a crack squad of part-time Morris dancers off to the Sunderford autumn festival – which the players took in their stride. This may, though, have been made easier by their apparent lack of knowledge of the dance style I was discussing. Focus went on to how they could win the dance competition which I found settling – if they weren’t going to engage with that then the day ahead could easily go sour. I hadn’t been looking forward to having anyone stuck for eight hours in a game that they were not enjoying, especially as this what they had travelled to Leicester for and I felt a lot of responsibility to keep the group entertained.
At lunch time I was laughing as I walked down the road to the dining hall. All the dread I’d been feeling at breakfast time had completely evaporated. In a complete turnaround, I was now looking forward to the afternoon ahead. Indeed, the rest of the game flew past and before I knew it, the time was 5pm and we had to end there. For some reason, I’d assumed the schedule said 6pm and that I had an hour to bring in the “boss fight”. Sadly, the end was instead abrupt and unsatisfying. As a player you want to go away with a sense of achievement, or loss even – at least something. Thankfully, the game had been weird and wonderful enough to make up for that.
A long Nationals tradition is the charity re-roll. If you get a result in a game that you don’t like, chuck 50p in the pot and try again. If you pay £1, you get the re-roll AND a specially designed die. In the past, the die may have a logo in place of the pips on one side but recently there has been a smart move to create a set of different dice. If you can put the word “collectable” in front of anything – like “card game” – then you are on to a winner as people will throw money at you to complete the set. As you can see, I spent £5 and I was the GM – I didn’t need to re-roll as the referee in a role-playing game is allowed to ignore the dice rolls at any time. As the late E. Gary Gygax was alleged to have said “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.” I now have a handful of dice that I’m never going to use but that’s not a problem. Not all dice are for rolling. Solid metal dice, especially. To over-egg the pudding, there was also a game called “A Clash of Dice” written specifically to make use of the dice.
Another tradition is the Geek Quiz and the questions cover gaming, movies, literature, and so on. When you have a team of just two like we do, it is very hard to get any answers as there is no breadth of knowledge. This year we decided not to enter so as to avoid the crushing feeling of defeat. Look at the flag round, for example. I would have been able to get just one. ((I’ve added a table of links if you want to try guessing yourself where they are from)).
A different flag competition was the chance for teams to bring along their own. My favourite was from Aberystwyth. The Welsh motto “Nid Byd, Byd Heb Cthulhu” is a play on their University’s – “Nid Byd, Byd Heb Wybodaeth” (A world without knowledge is no world at all). I’m sure you can work out the translation of their motto yourselves:
Sunday came around and, strangely, breakfast time had me feeling unsettled again. I had chatted with a fellow D&D GM on Saturday about our respective games and found out that I was to host his players today. They had sounded a rather efficient bunch and I was now concerned that they would eschew the light-hearted style and cut through my game like a hot knife through butter. It felt like the previous day with all its positive experiences had not happened at all. As you’d expect, though, Sunday went as well as Saturday with one exception – I knew what time the game would finish and started the end-game phase accordingly.
As a rule, I don’t relate stories of events that happened in the games. This is no “First rule of D&D club” situation. It’s just that if you are not there at the time, the events have little context and you as a listener have no investment of interest. Basically, it’s almost guaranteed to be boring. So I’ve limited y0ur exposure to just the one story.
There was an incident in the stables where some stable hands were trampled to death. Their bodies and the floor bore the marks made by flaming horseshoes. I intended this as a background event of little consequence – flavour text, if you will, for the plot. In my ignorance, I assumed the party would go “ooh, that’s interesting” but continue doing what they were doing. Unfortunately they dropped everything to turn into crime scene investigators. I should have seen that coming and related the information differently in the first place. So, to keep a lid on things, I posted the city guard outside the stables with strict orders to let nobody in. Obviously the party took this as a challenge – second mistake. The druid wild-shaped into a horse; the bard magically summoned a phantom steed; in between the two equine beasts was a heavily disguised pantomime horse containing the hobbit, a gnome and someone else. At the front, the remaining pair of party members lead the horses to the stables, explaining that they are under the King’s orders.
There is no way that plan is going to fail. The guards have to let the “horses” through because the power of the narrative is just too strong. For them to do otherwise would create a breach in the space-time continuum.
After the second game came the tricky part – getting together with the three other D&D GMs and choosing the category winners. Back in February, I’d put together a check list of what I would be looking out for:
- Getting into the character
- Team work (this isn’t Last Man Standing)
- Gaming etiquette (respecting other people, waiting your turn, etc.)
- Neat ideas
- Playing the spirit of the rules rather then the wording
- Not arguing with me
- Charity donations (not “Look at me, I’m rich” but just making a contribution)
Come the Nationals, though, this list didn’t help. A few of the players you could dismiss as just too quiet but the rest were all as good as any you’d expect to meet which made choosing between them impossible. This was made worse by the fact that I was only able to gain an appreciation of half the people in the category. I was desperate to avoid bringing any bias into the decision-making and tried to focus on their roleplaying skills. In the past I had frequently thought that the judges who said at the prize-giving that the decision had been really hard because of the quality of the players were just being nice. Now I’ve been there I know that ever word was probably true. I hope the three we picked were the best and that the other 21 people don’t feel too disappointed.
1st: Stephen Borgars-Smith – Vague MMU (Manchester)
2nd: Barrie Parnell – Imagineers
3rd: Clara Asmussen – BWRPS (Bangor)
The closing ceremony brings everyone together for a long session of thankyous, prize-giving and the final determination of the next hosts in 2015 (De Montfort, in case you’re interested).
I volunteered to hand out the awards – certificates for all, pot of Nationals dice for 2nd/3rd and a bright orange tabard for the winner (Example below of the social gaming winner). Wasn’t phased by talking unrehearsed in front of so many people which made me happy. I’m sure my piece to microphone wasn’t perfect – just like the PA system – but I did it and feel proud of myself.
Now the weekend has gone past and it’s a long year to the next Nationals. Maybe I’ll volunteer again. What could go wrong?