Sunday, September 28, 2014

Chaotic Good - "HAL-CON's Epic 40th Level D&D Birthday Party"

Almost a year ago I had the privilege of asking the organizers of HAL-CON what they had planned for 2014. One of the more exciting tidbits concerned the 40'th anniversary of D&D.

I didn't think much more of it until I started to see these incredibly-alluring posters popping up all over town:

After checking out the event's official Bookface page I was resolved. After all, I'm usually stuck on the business side of a DM screen and rarely get the chance to play.

Since this was going to be my first RPG-specific event I didn't want to go alone. I've had some pretty decent luck in the past, I mean persuading people to wing-man for me at events like this, but I would soon learn that this was no ordinary request.

I tried to be subtle at first, tossing out this off-handed Bookface status update back on August 28'th:

I got a few "Likes" but no encouraging nibbles. This was going to be a bit more challenging than I originally surmised.

Three days prior to the big hoedown, I decided that a more direct approach was in order:

This time: not so much as a peep from my so-called "friends", just a very funny reply from the event's coordinator, Shawn Kehoe:

For the record, Shawn was super-helpful, fielding concerns I had about character level requirements and which DM's had their shit locked down cold. If this was gonna be my first Fifth Edition game I really wanted the experience to be a positive one.     

The day before the big cotillion I attempted to cast a last-minute "Charp Person" spell on my friends in order to guilt someone into going with me. Since there's no less then seven players in my own semi-regular D&D group surely one of them would be the Belle for my ball?

But no dice. Not even a measly four-sider. Here what I got back:

"I'm not confident in my gaming skills."

But that's exactly what this event is for! 

"I have to babysit."

By all accounts Fifth Edition is pretty easy to pick up. Bring the kid along, he can be our cleric! 

"I have to sew some things together!"

Um, okay. I...I got nuthin' for this one

"My other D&D group meets up that day!"  

Wh-a-a-a-a-t?!?!?  You Jezebel!!!

"I'm on my way to a christening for my niece."

Yeah, whatever! That's the oldest excuse in the book! 

Weak, people. Weak.

So, it was to be a good, old-fashioned solo quest, eh? No problem! There was no way on Gord's Green Greyhawk that I was gonna miss a locally-hosted 40'th Anniversary par-tay for one of my favorite games of all time. Undeterred, I made a successful "Persuasion" check to convince my persistently patient wife to drop me off at the Lord Nelson Hotel at 9:30 am the following morning. She even had the decency to slow down to ten klicks this time!

This all started to feel like the first day of school to me. I actually felt a tad nervous. What homeroom class would I randomly end up in? Would they be nice people or jerks?

While waiting to get in I chatted with some of the people in the lineup and immediately felt at ease. For the most part, they seemed to be friendly, affable and mercifully-normal people. By the time we got the all-clear to head inside I was feeling particularly sanguine about the day's potential.

As soon as I crossed over the threshold I made a bee-line right for the registration table. My original plan was to try to take in two separate 5'th Edition D&D games: one in the morning and one in the afternoon / evening. As such, I quickly signed up for Lisa's game, which was starting up in just a few short minutes.
This gave me just enough time to peruse the fine wares proffered by the fine folks at Monster Comic Lounge. Lying resplendent before me was a veritable dragon's horde of fantasy-related boardgames for sale:

Not to mention a metric shit-ton of game manuals for several different RPG's including various permutations of D&D:

Before joining up with my new-found fellowship I bought a fist-sized d20 for me and a sparkly teal n' gold "Borealis" dice set from Chessex for my bestest gurl:

If Arr Pee Gees weren't your thang ("Say wha...?") there was also a huge library of dungeon-crawly boardgames that you could delve into toadly for free:

For me, going to a D&D-related event and not playing D&D makes about as much sense as going to Raging Waters but not getting wet. But, hey, to each his or her own. I won't judge. I'm just saying that you probably missed out, Bucko.

Admittedly there was no shortage of tempting diversions:

And hey, what's a birthday celebration without a cake? Event volunteer Marion used her +3 Spatula of Blending to turn in this amazing D&D-themed slab cake just for this extra-special occasion!

She even went through the bother of making a gluten-free option! How cool is that?

"I swear unto thee, a morsel of this fine lembas shall not be akin to a 'Web' spell in thine bowels."

After browsing around for as long as I could, I rushed over to meet my new ad-hoc adventuring partners. Again, to my relief, everyone seemed super-chill, especially Lisa, who would be our DM for the next few hours.

Here's a role-call (*snarf*) of the players and the characters they portrayed:

Chris as "Razzik" the Human Fighter
Grant as "Nodwick" the Lightfoot Halfling Rogue
Peter as "Dhun'n Stonebiter" the Hill Dwarf Cleric 
Rory as "Leshana Amastacia" the High Elf Wizard
Sandra as "Shara" the Human Fighter

One of the best ways to learn about a new edition of D&D is to create a bunch of characters from scratch. As such, I'd spent the prior evening cooking up a unique and diminutive l'il avatar for myself. 

"Hey, Lisa, would you mind if I played this original character?"

"Sure!" she said cheerily. "Let me just have a quick peek at your character sheet..."

"Absolutely!" I enthused, handing this over to her in response:


Race: Stout Halfling
Class: Ranger
Height: 3'2"
Weight: 32 lbs.
Hair Color: Brown
Eye Color: Dark Brown

Appearance: Braemar is slightly taller then most Halflings and his build is average if not a tad on the slim side, which belies his periodic feats of strength. Atop his head is a mop of thick, disheveled, not-quite-shoulder-length brown hair. Even though Halflings are generally incapable of growing beards, Braemar sports a pair of prodigious sideburns and looks surprisingly scruffy, a silent testament to his life on the road as an adventurer-for-hire.

Origin: A woodworker and casual farmer, Braemar was fiercely proud of the victory garden he cultivated every year in the front yard of his burrow. The only real threat he faced to this seasonal crop was an annual plague of vermin, which he came to despise and combat with a passion. When his Aunt Lavinia’s home became infested with giant earwigs, Braemar took it upon himself to exterminate the threat single-handedly and free of charge. As tales of his insect-fighting prowess began to spread, Braemar was feted as the town’s official “Bugslayer”. Unfortunately, everyone in the village started asking him to deal with their own pest-control problem, for free of course! About three weeks ago, Braemar disappeared from town, the circumstances of which he refuses to talk about.

"Yeah, I think that would be fine!" Lisa concluded, handing the sheet back to me.

And with that she began to guide us through a segment of the awesome "Lost Mines of Phandelver" campaign module included with the new D&D Fifth Edition Starter Set. Needless to say, if you haven't played through it yet then some minor spoilers lie ahead. Thou hast been warned.

The adventure started with the hoariest of D&D adventure hook clichés: some shady, rich one-percenter hires a bunch of poor, rag-tag fortune seekers (I.E. us) to guard a wagon-load of provisions going from Point "A" to Point "B". Naturally about three miles outside of town we find the road blocked by a bunch of dead horses, prelude for a ham-fisted goblinoid trap.

I'd have to describe Braemar's inaugural combat as "inauspicious" at best. Because of my terrible die-rolls, I couldn't have hit a cow in the ass with a shovel during that first fight. I failed to land so much as a single point of damage, even after switching from my short-bow to some hot double-hammer action.

Even worse, I got perforated by a veritable hail of arrows and spears, giving Lisa an opportunity to get Fifth Edition's Death and Dying rules out of the way. At least my Saving Throws in this endeavor were reasonably good. This allowed me to stabalize, get treatment and heal a Hit Die worth of damage thanks to the Short Rest which followed. 

Regardless of my own piss-poor performance, we collectively defeated the goblins, taking two of them prisoner and "Intimidating" some info out of them. Pretty soon our wagon train was back on course to Phandalin.

From left to right: Razzik, Leshana, Nodwick, Dhun'n, Shara and Braemar. The two dice represent our wagon and yes, I'm fully aware that one of those two figures is a kobold, so go fuck yourself, bright boy.

In an effort to make up for my previous whiff-fest, I took up the vanguard and detected a snare trap in the road ahead. After dismantling that (and also avoiding the WORST PIT-TRAP EVAR), we arrived at a river flowing out of a cave mouth. Across the stream, perched atop an embankment, were a pair of goblin guards casting lots, chuckling to one another and generally being oblivious.

 Razzik, Braemar, Nodwick and Shara ponder the best way to murderhobo two innocent goblins. The eraserpen (peneraser?) represents the river between us and our quarry. It's a game of imagination, people, c'mon, use it! Sheesh! 

Our sneak attack didn't go so well and, surprise, surprise, I totally missed with my surprise round bow shot. We dropped one of these schmucks but the other dude shucked and/or jived his way back into the cave to warn his friends. Assuming that the goblins were gonna pour out of there like a swarm of pissed-off wasps, Chris and I quickly laid down a flammable trap and bottle-necked the entrance. Unfortunately the goblins were dug in like a bunch of Alabama ticks.

We'd have to go in and flush 'em out the hard way. 

At that point Shawn came over and told us that the official cake-lighting ceremony was about to start. This was the perfect time to take a quick break and watch the festivities!  

 "AAAARGGH!!! My HeroQuest figures are on fire! OH NOES!!!!"

So, after forty years of failed attempts, some D&D players finally managed to summon one of the Great Old Ones...kidding! Thankfully those days are over, amirite, kids?

"Blood for the Blood God!!!"

After a communal rendition of a certain copyright-protected Birthday-related ditty that will go unmentioned, I walked around the hall for a little bit. Several new tables had sprung up but I was disappointed that the place wasn't teeming with hordes of similarly-minded revelers. This left me wondering if events like this would be better attended during those Alwayswinter Night months from November to March when there was nothing better to do then huddle indoors?  

It's times like this when I wish I could cast a "Mirror Image" spell on myself and see what's going on at every table. I always feel like I'm missing out on something!

Soon it was back to the adventure and we quickly picked up where we'd left off. After tentatively venturing inside the cave we immediately encountered a small pack of tethered wolves. I quickly jumped in and used my "Animal Handling" skill to good effect and pretty soon those precious l'il pups were a-lickin' our rosy cheeks like ice cream cones. 

I think it's safe to say that everyone around the table had a fair amount of gaming experience so what we did next didn't seem quite so nutty at the time. Collectively we decided to commit that most cardinal of D&D sins: we split the party.

Dhun'n and I scampered up a fissure in the ceiling while Razzik, Nodwick, Shara and Leshana took the scenic route along the river. They soon arrived at a larger chamber dominated by two sizable pools of water and guarded by three alert n' angry goblins. Immediately a fracas broke out, prompting Peter and I to expedite our plans.

We'd emerged into a massive storeroom filled with crates and provisions looted from other caravans. Even more dire: the room was presided over by a mangy-looking wolf, two more goblins and a creature that Lisa initially described as a very large goblin. Throwing caution to the wind, Dhun'n and I rushed out of the shadows to try and catch our quarry unawares.

And that's when Lisa told us that the big dude wasn't a hobgoblin as we'd erroneously assumed but a freakin' BUGBEAR. When it came time for the big, hairy bastard to pick a target between Peter and I, Lisa did exactly what I would do: she rolled randomly to see who he'd lash out at. After a six-sider clattered to the table and came to rest behind her screen she looked up at me and smiled evilly.

"He swings at you," she said, pointing my way.

The subsequent brutal hit sent me crashing ass-over-kettle into a crate five feet away, reducing me to exactly zero Hit Points in the process. Audibly I cursed my bad luck. Would I spend this entire fight on the sidelines as well?

"Did anyone get the license plate of that truck? No? Um, okay then. I'm just gonna lie here for a little while..." And yes, I know that's a cougar and not a wolf. Go eat a bowl of kobold dicks, ya Poindexter. 

Even though all you grognards out there might be scoffing at our strategy, splitting up actually worked out pretty well. Peter and I distracted Klarg the Big-Ass Bugbear long enough for Chris, Grant, Sandra and Rory to secure the Twin Pools Cave and then come to our aid. At least that was the plan.

Unfortunately, just before the goblins were routed, their boss, Yeemik, grabbed a nearby human hostage and squeaked:

"Truce or this human dies!"

"I care not. Behold my field of fucks and see that it is barren."

Thinking fast, Rory went all Chris Sabian on the twitchy goblin. Knowing that his minions were defeated and anxious to overthrow Klarg as the cave's overseer, Yeemik agreed to negotiate. But Rory had one more trick up his sleeve:

"As is customary, let us shake hands as a sign that we have entered a formal and binding parley."

Desperate to save his own hide, Yeemik extended a sweaty, shaky goblin paw which Leshana was quick to grasp.

And by "grasp" I mean "Shocking Grasp".   BRRRRR-ZZZZZZAAAAAPPPP!!!!!

"Nice job, Rory!" I enthused. "That's some real three-dimensional thinking right thur!"

And with that, Razzik, Nodwick, Leshana and a re-constituted Shara quickly scrambled up the steps to re-enforce Dhun'n and I. Thanks in part to his stout armor, Peter's wily dwarf was still holding his own against the bugbear chieftain.

Shara joined Dhun'n in an attempt to outflank the creature which led to the only baffling moment of the game. I was perfectly fine when the dice randomly selected me as Klarg's initial target but when Shara joined the melee, Lisa inexplicably included me in yet another random attack roll.

"Ummm, I thought you were five feet away and knocked out?" Grant whispered to me.

"Yeah, so did I," I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

A-a-a-a-a-n-d, of course Lisa rolled my number. So, instead of the wounded bugbear defending himself from a hale and hearty dwarf cleric and a powerful human fighter, Klarg inexplicably decided to lean in and skewer the comatose halfling lying crumpled and unconscious amidst the ruins of a smashed up crate. Ummm, ooookay, whatever.

This put me back into the negatives, so I found myself making Death Saves for the second time in one session! I finally rolled my first (and only) "20", giving me two successes in one throw. Braemar lives!!!

But not for much longer. As the battle wore on, my Death Saves started to go sour. Just before I was about to break a two-for-two tie, Peter finally took pity on me and cast a seven-point Cure Wounds spell.

"Oh, thank God!" I intoned. "So, am I at zero Hit Points or just one?"

"Oh no," Lisa said. "Even though you were in the negatives, you just pop right back up to seven. And, hey, it's your turn!"

I was immediately reminded of that scene in Pulp Fiction when a comatose Uma Thurman jumps up and starts doin' shit like everything's normal after Vincent Vega jammed that adrenaline needle through her sternum. Essentially I went from "one foot in the grave" to a house on fire!

Sick and tired of being every monster's butt-monkey, I sprang up and rushed to Leshana's aid, who'd just been dropped by Klarg's pet wolf.  

"Okay, I'm gonna use my 'Nimble' ability to run underneath Klarg. Then I'm gonna fire an arrow at the wolf."

On my very next turn I swiveled and then dropped the worse-for-wear Klarg with my Twin Mallets of Doom™. OH, SWEET, SWEET NECTAR OF REVENGE!!!

Against all odds we'd managed to overcome our enemies and win the day!

Wily veteran campaigner that he is, Chris immediately started to inventory the stolen trade goods while I looted Klarg's corpse. To set a positive president, I made a point to split all of the coins I found equally amongst all six of us. This ensured that everyone else followed the same protocol for all of the loot we found in that cave. 

And with that, our time had elapsed. We all thanked Lisa for a job well done and prepared to go our separate ways.

I took this opportunity to peruse the schedule again and plan out my next move. Lisa's second session was starting in about an hour but since I was looking for as much variety as possible I was leaning more towards Trevor's game at 4 pm.

At this point I wish I could do a retroactive intervention on myself. At the time Marion, the same person who'd made the awesome birthday cake, was trying to scare up some participants for a Lords of Waterdeep tournament.

"It's not gonna be much of a tournament if we only have four people," she lamented.

I felt kinda sorry for her so I agreed to join in. Hey, it's not like she had to twist my arm or anything since my love of the game isn't exactly a closely-guarded secret.

'No problem,' I thought to myself. 'I'll probably get knocked out in the first round and still have time to jump in on Trevor's game.'

But as soon as I walked over to the table I instantly regretted my decision. Someone already sitting there positively reeked of sweat. Put it this way: their armpits probably hadn't been washed since their mother washed them. Super-seriously, it was gross.

I should have taken this as a sign and just walked away. But no, I'd agreed to help so I decided to suck it up and forge onward. 

Before we got started I was under the distinct impression that someone around the table had never played Lords of Waterdeep before, so, as a common courtesy I tried to explain a few things as I helped to set the game up.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, we all know how to play," the galloping douchebag to my immediate left suddenly announced.

This caused me to perform the world's most obvious double-take when I noticed that he was actually wearing a "Volunteer" t-shirt.

"Um, okay," I responded. "Well, just to help make the game go a little bit quicker we should probably put the Adventurers and the Gold on the board so we can all reach..."

"Yeah, no, we won't be doing that," he replied.

Immediately I felt like asking: "So, is this your copy of the game? If so, are you afraid that the rest of us are gonna steal stuff? If not, then why are you being such a tool? If you're participating in this game then why do you think you have a monopoly on doling stuff out like a fucking tournament judge? And if you start short-changing us then who do we report your mangy ass to?"

I don't say "mangy ass" lightly; I'm almost 100% sure that this components Nazi was the same dude who was stinking up the joint. Every impulse in my brain told me run, but I didn't. Indeed I failed to heed my own first and foremost commandment: life's too short to game with assholes.

Before we got started, the tournament's real overseer popped by to inform us that the overall winner would be decided by total points tallied up from three games, plus whatever Gold we'd collected. I thought this last caveat to be rather odd, so odd in fact that I promptly forgot about it as of this writing.

"Man, if I lose based on Gold I'm gonna be pissed," someone else observed. These words would prove to be frighteningly prophetic. 

In that first five player game I came in second place. Peter, who'd also carried over from our D&D game, finished first.

Like a heavily-perspiring onion, stank-boy revealed even more layers of annoying during this match. In addition to enjoying his self-appointed exclusive rights to hand out resources to everyone else, he also had a hard time keeping his greasy mitts off of everyone else's Victory Point markers.

To make matters even more intolerable, this clown had no concept of the term "indoor voice". He'd often blurt out loud, sudden exclamations or laugh like a hyena at one of his own hideously unfunny jokes. When the game started to turn sour for him he became petulant and even more obnoxious.

I tried to deal with this by being as polite as humanly possible but inside I was seething. For most of the game I just sat there in stunned silence. I couldn't remember the last time I'd encountered someone in the wild who brought to mind Wheaton's Law, but there he was, sitting right beside me and making my eyes water.

We suddenly had a sixth player throw his hat into the ring for Game Two, forcing us to split into two separate groups. As someone who's run tournaments before I wanted know exactly how that works but I was too preoccupied basking in a moment of sweet relief as low-tide boy and someone else was randomly (and mercifully) assigned to a different table. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, sucked in a lungful of relatively fragrant air and then settled into a peaceful, civil, challenging and enjoyable match against Peter and another fine gentleman who's name might also have been David.

Even though this second game was comparatively tranquil, I got Larissa as my random Lord, who only gets bonus Victory Points rom Buildings. I'd never played with her before so I had absolutely no idea what to do with her. Instead of concentrating on completing Quests and snapping up Buildings only when convenient I went "all Building, all the time" and came in a distant third as a result:

Throughout our game I could hear boisterous shouting coming from the other table. From what I could gather, all three of the players over there were racking up mad points. Apparently someone even managed to roll the score board twice, netting over 200 points. I know that it's possible but I also know that it's pretty fucking rare.

After our sixth player inexplicably vanished from whence he came (presumably in a puff of smoke) all five of us reunited for the third and final game. Before I could ask about our disappeared sixth player, fuck face waltzed back over to our table, sized up the score and then turned to me and said:


I won't lie to you folks, I saw red there for a second. My Irish temper flared up and I had to fight the impulse to push this loathsome cunt to the floor and jam every single one of those colored wooden Agents up his fucking nose.

But I didn't. I just kept quiet and silently vowed to beat him in this final game.

The 20' radius "Stinking Cloud" had returned and I was sorely tempted to ask the Monster Comic Lounge people if they sold the same stuff coroners smear under their noses while performing autopsies. As if the fates took pity on me, I was lucky enough to win a free copy of Hoard of the Dragon Queen as a Door Prize.  WOO-HOO!!!

Winning this definitely made up for the olfactory punishment I was enduring. Cripes, talk about livin' the stereotype.

At the end of the game I was a few Victory Points ahead of Zippy McSweats-a-Lot. He had more Gold but I had more Adventurers and had completed one more Quest then him. Yet by the time this guy moved all of our Victory Point markers around he'd somehow managed to get two fucking points ahead of me.

I'm just gonna go ahead and assume that the stupid "Gold counts for points" tournament house rule resulted in this travesty because the alternative is way beyond maddening. If I could prove that there were some deliberate shenanigans going on then I would have certainly voiced some sort of objection.

But how could I? The two of us were battling for last place, so none of the other players really gave a shit. And who can blame them? The only reason I cared is because of the unwarranted pre-game trash-talk.

Like I said, the alternative is pretty inconceivable. You'd have to be a sad piece of work to cheat against a complete stranger in a fucking board game. This is why I'm so particular about the people I game with: clearly there are some crazed power-gamer types out there who aren't beyond engaging in some chicanery. 

So instead of kicking up a fuss I just stood there, brow furrowed, jaw clenched, with buckets of adrenaline coursing through my body. I'd never been in this awkward position before so I was trying to formulate an appropriate response that didn't involve beating someone to death with a folding chair. In the end I concluded that it wasn't worth it and I just let it slide.

And, man, was that a mistake...

Before I knew it, the Game Three scores had been submitted to our sole judge who's been in absentia several times during the day. I can't really slight them for this since it's boring as shit to pay close attention to other people playing board game for hours on end. But you have to, otherwise some greasy shit can creep in.

So, seconds later I had to stand there while it was announced that chowder head had supposedly beaten me in the overall standings by one fucking point.

While we were all putting the game away ("OooOooo, I can touch the components now? Really?!?!? O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!") I couldn't help but get a quick shot in:

"So," I says to Pancho loud enough for everyone else to hear, "how many Quests did you say you ended up finishing?"

"Um, five," he said sheepishly.

"Huh, really," I shot back. "I finished six. Plus I was two points ahead of you before final scoring and I had more Adventurers in my Tavern. Funny how that added up, huh?"

After he drifted away I took a moment to thank everyone else involved, particularly Peter who'd deservedly won first place.

"I had a pretty awesome day overall. If there's another event like this, I'll definitely go but that's my last tournament."

"Aww, don't say that, man," Peter replied with sincere sympathy.

"No, seriously," I said. "I don't give a damn about winning. If playing games was predicated on me finishing first, I'd never play games. It's just the principal of the thing."    

By then it was around 7 pm or so, far too late to join any of the other D&D sessions in progress. So instead I just went outside and took a seat on the hotel patio to try and cool down while waiting for my pick-up to arrive. This also gave me a chance to mull over the events of the day.

Later that evening I debriefed my own D&D group about the day, which prompted Mark to observe:

"Guessing you met a dick or two?"

To which I replied:

"Just one. Not bad considering all the other fine folks I met today."

Just like any other adventure, that first delve can be pretty rough. But considering I only encountered one Neutral Asshole, I'll certainly be back again to fight another day.


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