Thursday, July 6, 2017

Room Full of 'Toons

Normally, when I celebrate RPG people, I'll know their names, but this is a hazy memory from decades past, at Balticon sometime in the very early 90s. It's worth writing down, though, because it's a brief and inspiring tale of heroic GMing.

Balticon has never been a gaming con, but we had a nice (tiny) gaming room in the hotel wine-cellar (which is as atmospheric as that sounds, for the grandest of the tables at least) where gamers would come and go, and catch players as well as they could. There were a few scheduled games but mostly it was pickups.

It was a slow evening, and most of the "action" in the gaming room was people sitting alone at each table, sifting through their swag from the hucksters, reading comics, paging through modules and worldbooks, or drawing a dungeon or two. If you've done many cons, you know the gaming-room mausoleum hours; this was a typical suppertime pause, the lull before the night-gaming would kick in.

Into this quiet scene swept an energetic young GM, calling any and all to a TOON game he'd be running in his room in one thin hour. He didn't stop for conversation; he was a man on a mission, and he'd extend his mission to the entire hotel or at least all the populated rooms, a town crier with a message of impending TOON.

I heard his brief pitch, noted the room number, and nodded happily as he passed. I didn't want to draw a dungeon and I'd already read my comics, so a pickup TOON game sounded perfect. I went to stash my swag, acquire a beverage, and slip into a TOON-ish mindset (it's never far off).

When I got to the hotel room, I was almost as shocked as the Game Master, standing with a stunned expression across the room ... with at least thirty eager gamers crammed around the bed, on the bed, on the chairs, between the chairs, and on the floor lining along the walls. I was one of the last ones in before everyone agreed the room was too full in the general sense, and probably some kind of fire hazard in the legal.

I watched the GM with interest. He was busy processing his situation, taking it all in, doing quick mental calculations and slamming down conclusions. He set his TOON rulebook and character sheets to one side; they would not avail him in the battle to come.

I had a few guesses running through my head, but none of them came true. He did the (to me, back then) unthinkable: he let everyone stay, and started the damn game.

There'd be no dice or rulebooks or sheets, not with thirty players and limited oxygen. He cleared the players from the bed; it would be his GMing station. They scurried to the walls and everyone scooted butts to accommodate them.

Bouncing slightly on the bedsprings, he painted the situation in broad strokes with wide arm-motions: "It's the 1920s, and the 'toons on THIS side of the room are drinking and dancing and having a blast at the local speakeasy! The toons on THIS side of the room are the Keystone Kops, getting ready for a raid!"

"YOU!" he pointed to a gamer near me (on the partying side) "What are you and what are you doing?"

He was a hillbilly bear, drinking from a XXX liquor-jug and dancing like a loon.

I was next, and I was a bowlegged black cat, arc-spitting into a spittoon across the room (it's a 1920's cartoon; I figured someone should be spitting).

On and on, rapid-fire, he led thirty gamers through six-second bouts of verbal character creation and scene-establishing. Some characters were dancing together; some were arguing over a card game; some were serving behind the bar or swinging from the chandeliers or playing musical instruments.

With the party in full swing, he declared: THE DOORS CRASH OPEN, and he went on to do the same character-describing routine with everyone on the police half of the room, as each one came storming in, eager to bash the heads of all these 'toons flouting the Volstead Act.

With never a pause -- with, indeed, the same sweep-the-room energy he'd displayed hawking the game across the convention -- he played the game in a weaving round-robin from player to player, back and forth from Kop to reveler, until we all felt comfortable with the whole place collapsing to the ground in a puff of smoke, broken glass and hurtling 'Toons.

The game -- such as it was -- went for an hour and change, no more than two. And in that time, each of us got only a handful of "turns" at the virtual microphone, just brief, manic, violent moments in the spinning spotlight. But we were all engaged, we were all fixated, in fact, and we laughed and we yelled and we must've raised the air-temperature 40 degrees with our voices.

And we left utterly satisfied and thoroughly impressed.

Afterwards, I chatted just briefly with the GM, who was still catching his breath, and looking like he'd just survived a mugging (but in the nice way). He confirmed what I'd suspected: he really had no plan for that many players.

And I wandered off in a happy daze, not just because I'd had a pleasing jolt of concentrated roleplaying, but because I'd witnessed one of the greatest acts of Game Mastering courage I've ever seen. He could have divided us into groups and rescheduled. He could have turned most of us away. He could have done any number of things, but he was fast on his feet (bouncing like a happy kid on that hotel bed), ready to use his voice, and after just a moment's thought, crystal clear on what he was going to do to make sure everyone had a good time.

I don't remember his name; I wish I did. But I'll never forget his game.

Lessons: Gaming without rulebooks leans instead on the rules inherent in the gameworld, genre, and scenario. Sometimes the strongest adventure designs have the simplest premise. GMing can be as much about courage as it is about prep. If it's a 1920s cartoon, someone should be spitting.