Wombat's Path II: Off To College

College: The process of a young person trying everything in hopes of finding something tolerable to do that might actually pay well while suffering under a crushing load of homework and figuring out how to navigate shark-infested social waters.

I bloomed in college. High school saw the start of that, but I didn't get to really branch out until I moved out. Gaming and theater gave me a place to start, especially at a tech school like WPI, and especially back in 1987 when I arrived.

The first week I was there, I wandered the halls until I overheard someone talking about Melf's Acid Arrow. I poked a head in and told the three young men in the room that Melf was an old friend of mine and could I play too. I rolled up a gnome cleric/thief and we got to rolling dice.

I only played a couple of sessions. The GM definitely approached the game very differently than what I grew up with. Everything about the experience - the table talk, the attitude, the ever-more-deadly encounters that had no flow and no raison d'etre - spoke about how the GM and players could never work together. I didn't know how to react, but I knew I couldn't stay.

The party got to a room with a lava-filled fissure with hordes of demons crawling out of it. He asked me what I wanted to do. I responded, "Well, I throw myself into the fissure and sacrifice myself to the dark god. Here's my character sheet. I need to go."

In retrospect, I can see the childishness in my response. Then again, childishness filled that particular game. I didn't keep up with the GM - I felt a little betrayed about the whole thing - but I did manage to start gaming with the rest of the players who quit about an hour after I did. I dusted off Highcastle and started a roughly-D&D rules-light low-level game.

Halfway through my freshman year, three things happened. I got a part in my first-of-many shows with the theater group on campus, significant since I ended up with a theater degree. The Science Fiction Society elected me president of the club, the outcome of a purely political move to block a faction that wanted to shape the club after the MIT Assassins' Guild but still surprising. I played my first LARP, run by the people who wanted to shape the SFS after the Assassins' Guild.

It was called Hell Week, a play on hazing rituals but in this case involving the actual opening of Hell itself. Piled high with WPI-specific references and pun-filled character names (I played Herb I. Vorr, a parapsychologist from California, and that's a tame example), loaded with character information scribbled onto 3x5 cards run through a line printer, clunky, barely cohesive, run by three sleep-deprived maniacs who could barely hold themselves together, It Was A Glorious Experience.

I bought the world. I bought the weirdness - my character investigated weirdness and was a member of a circle of white mages, so no big surprise there. I bought into the experience. It ran for a week, 24x7. Ambitious and downright insane, but it worked.

I will always remember about mid-week, when the forces of darkness rallied all the popular support to their side, when the three white mages and the two Priests of Elvis were forced into hiding from hordes of undead controlled by Michael Jackson cultists, I hid in a friend's apartment I had never been in before hunched on the toilet with a card for a teleport spell in my hand and ready to use. The adrenaline shook me awake for days.


This cemented my thought that you can dispense with the system if the story of the game compels you enough. Since the GM's time runs short far too often, it's up to the players to work out what happens in the scope of the game. Theater-style LARP really encourages the players to work it out on their own.

I've taken this lesson into my tabletop games in various ways, but more on that in future posts...


  1. The SFS had politics? I guess I was happily oblivious to that :-)

    I don't know what it was about Hell Week, but out of the 5 or 6 live games that I helped write/run, none of them came together as well as that one. The others were good, but Hell Week had several transcendent moments that the others lacked. Even during the writing stage, there were moments when Bill, Glen and I could tell (or at least we thought) that we were creating something really cool. Combine some inspired plot ideas with our wildly optimistic enthusiasm, throw in an amazing group of creative players who were willing to take our silliness and run with it, and I guess you get something special. I think your choice of words is accurate, it was a glorious experience from my point of view as well. I am very pleased with the impact the game had as well - there must have been at least 6 more live games run at WPI while I was there, and it looks like the LARP scene is still going strong there today. I like to think that Hell Week had something to do with that.

    Sleep deprived maniacs. Heh, that sounds about right. But, of course, you speak from experience.


  2. I think that one election was the extent of the politics that I saw in the SFS. The rest of it was begging for money, organizing the library, and setting up movie nights. Zardoz and Rollerball, anyone? *grin*

    Nothing beats your first game, eh? Part of that is the lack of expectations, but I really think you guys nailed it. Some mechanics were clunky, some situations were a little tough for you guys to make good GM calls, but there were so many great moments in that game that just shone.

    Yeah, Hell Week had something - possibly everything - to do with bringing LARP to WPI. It was one hell of an introduction for me, so thanks for having the cojones to write and run something that huge with zero support structure.

    Every Now And Again built on Hell Week, then the IQP game you guys wrote, and then things really started branching out from there... But I'll cover some of those games in future posts.

  3. I seem to recall handing out nails for Hell Week. Never understood what I was doing fully, but I appreciated being included. My first and only LARP.

  4. Chris,

    I think that was for It Was Better In Real Life, which was actually set in Hell and the third LARP to contain the characters from Hell Week. If memory serves me right, you were still a year or two away from working at WPI when Hell Week ran (spring 1988).

  5. SFS politics took a bit to settle out once the Prez from my (and Nick's) freshman year graduated and moved on. By the time we graduated it was a pretty easygoing organization.

    The games were all a great deal of fun - Hell Week, It Was Better in Real Life, what was the cyberpunk inspired one with the gangs? I was a Vlad. Dieter. Carried a bat.