Thursday, September 10, 2015

Oh, the Irony...

...a game about zombies is consuming my brain.

A couple of months ago, I made some very heavy RPG commitments in an effort to keep myself busy and happy. I had a Trail of Cthulhu game every other Sunday, a Shadowrun game scheduled for the "off" Sundays, a Wednesday night Marvel Heroic game, and a monthly D&D game.

The monthly D&D game was supposed to be the dump game. I would put it on for the public, bring in new players, then up-sell them on one of my other games. That way, I would keep a steady influx of new players, filtered through what I perceived as my least-important gaming commitment.

Because I was so dis-interested in running D&D (but motivated by the promise of new players), I asked myself a simple question: what would it take to get me excited about D&D?

If you've been reading a bit, then you probably know that I have two consistent loves: Lovecraftian horror and zombies. I was already scratching the Lovecraft itch with Trail of Cthulhu, but the zombie crave had been left unsatisfied for years. Previous attempts at launching a zombie apocalypse RPG always fell through.

And then, almost as fast as I asked myself the question, the answer was clear: I would run a zombie apocalypse in D&D.

Billing the public game on Meetup as "Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead," I grabbed my notebook and immediately started free-associating everything my mind could come up with about both zombie apocalypses and fantasy fiction. The first hurdle I jumped over was the cliche trap. A fantasy world full of zombies isn't exactly ground-breaking. Neither genre on its own is known for innovation. That's fine, I said to myself. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here, I'm just grafting something I something I'm not that crazy about, swords-and-sorcery fantasy.

The next hurdle was the technology one. There is something raw, creative, and freeing to me about just jotting non-sensical notes into a notebook. The less-organized, the better, I thought. Embrace the chaos. I didn't even bother with a regular notebook; I took a bunch of printer paper, hole punched the top left corner of the entire bunch, then slapped a book binding clip onto it. Done. I wrote the campaign's name..."The Darkest Age," based on a not-funny joke in my head about the only thing being darker than the Dark Age was an age of zombies...and began scribbling.

The night before the game, I had Dawn of the Dead on in the background while I went back through my notes, scratching out the stuff that wouldn't work, rewriting and refining the stuff that would. I came up with a simple, charged situation...the PCs were stuck in a halfling village when the zombies came...and was just ready to go for broke.

Meanwhile, on the Meetup page, the popularity of both D&D and zombie apocalypses was clearly evident. I had to turn off RSVPs once I hit the 12 player mark. This lead to the third major hurdle: I had too many players. That's just about the most awesome problem a DM can have, but it's a problem, nevertheless. So I dealt with that the same way I dealt with the other two problems: acknowledging it was going to be a problem, and charging right into it. I knew there was no practical way I was going to run a solid game of D&D with 12 players. Even the 12 players must have known that. So I was going to run a game resembling D&D. Still using the 5e ruleset, I whipped together a bunch of minigames, house rules, and ways to divide and conquer my players.

Then, it was game-time. I had two players who couldn't make it, dropping me to a smaller-but-still-virtually-unmanageable ten players. They showed up, grabbed a pre-gen, tweaked it to their liking, and off we went.

The first game went down exactly how it sounds here: a chaotic mess, a veritble kitchen sink of tropes, cliches, and genre conventions hurled against the wall, and me eagerly examining the mess to see what stuck.

The players loved it. They went on and on about how much fun it was. In my after-game critique where I go around and ask every player to tell me one thing they liked and one thing they disliked, the only consistent thing that came up in the dislike column was that it wasn't a "traditional" enough game. They all understood why it was non-traditional, but nevertheless; they signed up for D&D, not this bizarre amalgamation of freestyle roleplaying and minigames I hammered together under the banner of D&D. They all loved it, and they were eager to see what I'd do with D&D proper. By the end of it, I was eager to see that, too.

So The Darkest Age went from my "RPGing for dummies" game to the one I looked forward to the most. When I told everyone the game would only be monthly, several players were disappointed.

And then, two days later, I got an email from one of this game's players: Nathaniel, a 10-year-old boy who played a monk. He was, to date, the youngest player I've ever had at an RPG event. He asked me if I would please consider making the next game sooner. My heart melted. "What are you doing next weekend?" I responded.

My mind went into overdrive. I whipped out my jumbled pile of papers called a "notebook," scribbled yet more ideas, and this time refined it with the D&D ruleset. I threw together some dungeons. I read the rules on encounter building and made different configurations of zombies to fight. I took the things that worked about the first game, refined them, and kept them in. I took the things that didn't work and filtered them out.

The main thing that didn't work about the first game was the size of the group. But all ten players in the group were awesome, I didn't want to cut a single one of them, no matter what. So I did the necessary thing: I scheduled back-to-back games, taking five players for each. It ended up working out to four in one game and seven in the other (a friend of mine jumped in). Both games went great. And now, here I am.

In two days, we start the third session of Dungeons & Dragons: The Darkest Age. In two weeks, I am within a mere four sessions of my longest-running campaign. And I could not be more excited for it. All of my notes, combined with answers I took from my players, were pooled together and whipped into an Obsidian Portal page, which you can look at here. It contains a wiki of all the major stuff we've learned about the world so far, full character sheets for several of the players in my game, and some brief summaries of the two sessions thus far. The other games...Trail of Cthulhu, Marvel, by one have fallen out of my mind. There is nothing left in my brain now except zombies. Hence the irony.

In over 20 years of roleplaying, this may just be the best thing I've ever done.

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