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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dodd

35 Players, One Wall, Two Tables

As a GM, indeed as any volunteer at a convention, you sometimes find yourself doing things that go over and above the nature of what you needed to do to get the free entrance. For most of us, it goes with the territory, you just get on with it, get the job done, and then wonder about how you did it afterwards.

So, the year was 2001, Gencon UK, I’d volunteered as a GM, and the evening session was coming up, so I went to check in, see how many players I’d got, saw that there were only three, so took them. I then heard the call go up that a few gm’s hadn’t turned up, and could any other GM take them in their game. Ever the idiot, I put my hand up and say yes.

I’m fairly loud when I’m at conventions.

Every player in that area who didn’t have a game heard that and came over.

I now have 35 players…

Never one to worry about the odds, I set about finding a table big enough for all of us, which takes ten minutes and we end up pushing all the tables for the GM’s that didn’t show, into one area, bracketed by one of the acoustic barriers. I divide the players into four teams and ask each of them to appoint a leader for that team so I don’t have thirty five people all shouting at me at once, which would be untenable. I explain that the scenario is that they’re investigating an arctic outpost that’s gone dark, and it’s literally going dark now, the six months night is approaching, so they need to get in, each of them representing a different nation, find out what’s going on, and then report back, first team back, gets the win. I spoke to everyone in advance, went around everyone in turn and pointed out that there was going to be some paranoia, some of them might end up shooting each other, and that the game wasn’t going to be Shakespeare in the Park.

Of course it’s not, it’s actually The Thing

For those not familiar, The Thing scenario involves playing through the John Carpenter film of the same name, a creature with the ability to mimic, perfectly, any living creature it makes contact with. These scenarios end in blood baths as characters tend to go paranoid and shoot everything before long.

In this case however, I have a plan…

After several minutes of frantic scribbling, prepared are several pieces of paper, on 34 of them is written “Smile and nod, you’re now the alien, now go sit down, your job is to get alone with another character to convert them.” On one of them is written “Smile and Nod, then go sit down”. Time passes, one character infects another, before long some of the infected characters are helping other nations to get through their problems, and it’s around two hours before all 35 notes are handed out, at which point, they’ve narrowed it down to where they think the aliens are coming from, they’ve secured all the goods from the armoury, they’re well stocked up. The 35th player, I’ve established from speaking to the other players who all knew them, is someone who really gets into the game and likes organising people and very much gets into the spirit of it.

Number 35 has been true to form and is really quite pleased with themselves, they’re co-ordinating a multi nation mission to wipe out the alien, and they’re going to do it in and get all the credit. They set everything up, sent twenty people with guns down into the alien pit while the other fourteen stay up top in case it escapes.

All the while this has been happening, I’ve been passing notes to my willing conspirators getting them to slowly change positions so that the player who’s doing the organising is in the middle of the group, centre of both sets of tables, making sure that he’s directing the others well. I should point out that by this time, we were some of the only people left playing in the hall, and they were getting close to closing up time, so it was fairly quiet when no one was speaking. We had the plan, all was ready, teams divided.

“So that’s what you’re doing?” I ask

“Yep, those twenty down, these fourteen with me.” He replies

“Alright, let’s see how well that goes,” I pause, “Would all humans please raise their hands.”

35’s hand goes up, surrounded by 1-34 just looking at him.

There’s an almost cartoony double take as he glances around 34 hostiles, a swiftly muttered curse and he dives backwards from his chair. Considering this might have been the case, we’d managed to get him placed so that the acoustic screen was behind him to avoid him diving onto something else, we figured it was big enough and heavy enough that it would stop any backwards motion, and if not, the other players are on hand to steady the screen.

Nope, he’s so in his character that he dives back fast and hard enough that the screen tips and he ends up rolling to the other side, where he stands there for a second while everyone else makes like an extra from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

He was delighted, so much so that he jumped back over the screen and spent ten minutes thanking everyone for a wonderful game. I’m thankful that when I was talking to the players individually, I spent the time asking which of them they trusted, and then took the advice of those that all agreed they trusted each other on who player 35 should be.

They all asked if we could do it again the next year, to which I said that I’d try and be there, but if not, find me again at another convention and I’ll happily do it.

It was ten years later at Dragonmeet that I saw most of them again and true to my word, I ran something similar again, they all knew what was coming, but they didn’t know who the alien was, so while there was fun and merriment had, it didn’t have the same effect as the previous one.

What I learned from it that served me very well at all the conventions that I’ve run since, was that if you’re playing with unknown variables (particularly 35 of them), then you need to keep things simple, and you need to enlist the help of the players to keep things working well. Making sure everyone had an idea of what was going to happen was vital, and while all precautions were taken, nothing short of a solid wall and a mattress would have stopped that player from diving through, and setting up a mattress behind them may have given the game away somewhat, which gave me my greatest lesson:

Sometimes, despite every precaution you could have taken being taken, things happen that you couldn’t have predicted.

But that, dear reader, is a story for another time…

Tomorrow: The Evolution of Conventions

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