Gaming While Ill (Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Just Enjoy The Moment)
Welcome to Mostly Tryin’, a blog series where I, Rick, a UK-based board game and RPG designer, face my fear of failure by failing repeatedly and learn how to make good games by making bad ones. In every post, I’ll be reflecting on a different game, and sharing what went well, what didn’t, and how I’ve taken each experience forward with me in order to get better at creating and running games.
Six months on from my first-ever attempt to create an RPG, I was on my first-ever transatlantic flight (from Scotland to the U.S.), headed to my first-ever gaming convention. I had, due to a chronic inability to say no to people, also agreed to run my first-ever convention games (two of them!).
I stared at my notepad—freshly bought the week prior—and turned over page after page of crisp, blank graph paper. Desperately, I scribbled some notes, out of a need to write something, anything. After all, I couldn’t turn up with just a smile and some hastily-printed character sheets, could I?
I don’t remember anything else about that flight, other than the feeling of dread as I started to feel unwell. In fact, I was coming down with a cold. (This was during those halcyon pre-pandemic days, where being ill was something you just kind of selfishly dealt with whilst inflicting it upon the people around you). I nudged my friend beside me and said a few words to them. They leaned in, clearly not having heard me—it was a busy flight and I didn't want to shout. I tried again and eventually realized that the problem lay entirely with the fact that I had lost my voice. What followed was the most miserable plane trip of my life, feeling feverish and trapped in a tin can at 35,000 feet.
My first time running games in a convention setting, and I’d lost my voice. Whatever, I thought. I’ll do what I must. Push through. I can’t—I won’t!—let people down.
The first game I ran was a short dungeon crawl using Dark Heresy as the setting and system—an inexplicable choice, given I’d never actually run the system before. I was a nervous wreck before the game and am pretty sure that it went horribly for the players involved. I’m certain that nobody even remembers that the game took place, as years later I shared this sorry tale with a close friend. He laughed along with my newbie DM story. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was one of the players that day.
Onto the second game then, and one I thought would be a novelty for the American contingent. A wholly made-up (very simple) game, about being retro-future Scots rebelling against the English that I have imaginatively titled…
I’ve leaned hard on puns and crafted a bunch of fictional figures from Scottish history that I made up purely because they made me laugh. (I’m particularly fond of William Wallhax, a portmanteau of <historical freedom fighter William Wallace> and a <Wallhack>; a common method of cheating in online video gaming.) The aim? Take down the most stereotypically British things possible:
Break through Hadrian’s Firewall (a reference to Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to separate Roman Britannia from the rowdy Caledonians), protecting England from these cyber-Scots
Defeat the Queen’s five Guardians, the Spice Girls (obviously)
Take down the Queen, a giant mecha-bee commanding dozens of beefeater-sporting drones
Subtle, it was not. But I only had two hours to fit in an entire game and I figured it would be best to hit people with something bombastic and gonzo.
Having learned from my previous attempt at game creation when I made a needlessly crunchy game with far too many stats, I decided that this system should be simple. For Braveheart 20XX I kept things very punny:
It used a d100 system where any roll equal to or below the skill score was a success. In order to add a little more chaos to that mix, I added Glitch cards, which I handed out whenever there was a critical failure, or a player took massive damage. Glitch cards had in-game effects, but to make it feel a little special, there were also some… other effects.
As for the game, it existed as a handful of notes, really just five or six sets of short paragraphs giving some kind of wacky intro for each enemy/Spice Girl, and from there the players took off running. In a game that was only to be two hours long, that was enough preparation to keep everyone entertained for the runtime.
A more confident GM, a more confident me, would have run that session better. The game wasn’t without its merits—a good few of the jokes landed, and I got to game with some incredibly clever and funny players. I blame the fact that I was basically running a Scottish-themed Mad Libs on my being sick while prepping and GMing. But in all the chaos—the mix of hot shame and uncontrollable laughter—something did click in my head: People *are* enjoying it. They’re enjoying something I brought to the table, created from nothing. So what if some of the gags didn’t land (turns out nobody knows who Robert Burns* is!)? I later realized that the key to my enjoyment of this looser style of game lay in the fact that it made me happy to line up gags and give others the space to knock them down. I was hooked.
In the final game of the weekend, one which I was playing in, not running, I had my eyes fully opened. The concept was madness. We were told to bring character sheets from the games we’d played throughout the weekend. How could this possibly work? What followed was two hours of total, delightful madness. Mad Max-esque hellions mixing with ponderous fantasy wizards. My knockoff Darth Vader was tossed to his doom, to be replaced by a panda bear carrying a hacker’s cyberdeck in his paws and wearing a cowboy hat. And it was *good*. Coming away from the table, tears still in my eyes from laughing with new friends, serotonin flooding my brain even as my body is telling me I needed to sleep for a week. Who knew that these games we play could be so life-changing? And who knew that these games could exist, where rules thought so sacred could be not just bent, but entirely snapped, or wrought out of existence, in the name of (say it quietly) having fun?
I was hooked. This was my thing. I spent the car journey after the weekend talking excitedly with my good friend. A photo of me, slack-jawed and slumped over in the back seat, told me that in fact, I had talked for maybe 20 minutes before falling fast asleep for the rest of the journey.
Lesson Learned: Relax! Everyone is here to have fun
I am very guilty of putting a load of pressure on myself, and I think it’s very easy for a new GM to feel fully responsible for everyone having a great time. To some extent, that is true; you’re introducing something new to your players (be it entire worlds or simply a new story set within a familiar one), inviting them to probe at it and build a story within it. But I believe that in many (if not most) cases, the players are willing you to succeed at that! In my case, it was giving the players scope to invent, and get creative with the environment I gave them— very much a “Yes, and” situation. In your game, it may simply be setting clear boundaries and expectations so everyone is playing with the same overall aims.
Next time I’ll be diving into the first game I’d consider a true “success” and looking at how these last two lessons came into play to help make it work.
*Robert (or ‘Rabbie’) Burns was an 18th Century poet, generally considered to be one of Scotland’s greatest cultural productions. He’s the guy who wrote Auld Lang Syne, the song your drunk auntie sings at New Year (sorry about that).
Rick is a UK-based board game and RPG designer, and forever GM. He enjoys football (aka soccer), kobolds (the thinking person's goblin) and trying to convince his cats to come lay on his lap.
Cloud Curio is not associated with any companies mentioned in the blog series Mostly Tryin'. We don't earn any money if you purchase any of the games, programs, or products mentioned. We'll always disclose if we're being sponsored in any way for what we write.