The Best Games I’ve Ever Played (part one of five)

“Small Town, Bright Lights” by Don Ide, played at ACNW 2003.

I have been in some awesome games. I mean, awesome in ways that make my eyes glaze over in memory and just get to this indescribable, “Uh, it was… awesome…” answer when people ask me about them. They’re a lot like dreams; so much has happened that’s in the moment and the world of the game that describing them just doesn’t always express the awesome.

I say this because in order to pick five favourites, I am not trying to deny any of the other awesome games I’ve been in… because I’ve been very lucky to mostly have positive gaming experiences. Can I think of five stinker games? Yep, I’ll post about those down the line.

To start with, I want to draw attention to the one I call my favourite game. Don Ide’s “Small Town, Bright Lights,” played at ACNW 2003.

Now, it might surprise anyone who was in the game, even the GM, that this is what I call my favourite game, but let me explain a little.

Without giving the plot away, “Small Town, Bright Lights,” started out kind of creepy. We had each, individually, experienced an episode of madness.1

Within the first 90 minutes, I think every one of the players (and the player mix was a big part of the enjoyment – we had what I would probably say was a spread of 3 straight players and the rest true wildcards2) realized individually that we weren’t getting out of this alive.

And boy, was that a fun ride. It was freeing in a sense that games where you know the GM isn’t going to kill you isn’t. You want to know you CAN risk it all. In this case, man, once you have made that decision, everything goes to another level. This is the first (and really, the only) game where that’s been made clear by the events and it was all…good. No fatalism, just realizing that meant we all had to be heroes, of a sort. It’s the allure, actually, of the Kobayashi Maru3 – you can’t quit, you can’t win, you might be clever enough to cheat, but you’re definitely there to play the game.

I was playing one of the straights. (I know, I’m typecast. [snort]) Up to the last inevitable moment I was going to fight as if I had something to fight for, waiting for that final hope, that chance it would work.

Things the GM did well:

 

 

  • Kept a good sense of tension.

 

 

 

  • We had to keep running, but we had enough time in any one place for the terror to build. The more we knew about what was happening, the more we could speculate, but the less we really knew. We never had enough time to do more than a little guesswork, try some things out. In some games it takes two hours for the players to finish shopping for their characters. We didn’t have that. We could try grabbing ether in a doctor’s office and setting it on fire… Anything else? Nope, they’re coming in through the windows. We’d better blow the place up and run.

 

 

 

  • Projected the sense of location – he knew exactly where he had placed it.

 

 

 

  • The important thing about this wasn’t for us, so much. As characters, we were running, we weren’t buying houses4. We were trying to find a place to catch our collective breath… so the GM knew exactly what the places were and could paint in some broad strokes. Did we die faster than we might have because of some bad choices of where we went? Sure… and it made sense in the game fiction.5

 

 

 

  • Kept the surprise.

 

 

 

  • This is different than keeping secrets. More and more I am convinced that there is no good strategy in a GM keeping secrets from the characters. Some of the best games I’ve been in have been ones where the players have been “in” on the secrets and the connecting the dots was all part of the fun. Keeping the surprise is different – a good GM spills the secrets and keeps the overall “surprise” so that you feel like, “I know where this is going and TWIST! REASONABLE… BUT UNEXPECTED TWIST!” It’s like what you’re supposed to feel when you slip on that banana peel. I think.

 

 

 

Things the players did well was to play, laugh, and creep themselves out. That’s a good game sequence right there, but it was great to have a GM support it.

 

1 Yes, this was the game with Timmy.

2 “Straights and wildcards” could probably be the name of any gamer mixer essay collection I make. Not regarding the “seven words you don’t use in gaming,” there really are “types.” This is a not a binary group, and it’s not even one I consciously think of when I’m working my games – I’m much more likely to do the Scooby test. “Straights” in this case, refers to the duo comedy era “straight man,” but in this case they play the PC not meant to be “outside the standard classifications” (fighter, thief, mage, cleric) who is surprised by, or is the object of, a campaign-twist. Wildcards, of course, are people who are playing the standard classifications but there’s something about the way they play it that means you can’t predict their actions. Most gamers fall within this spectrum, but what I’d consider a “true wildcard” is someone who could try to play a “straight” all they want… and fail. Yeah, the LintKing is kind of one of these. They’re not trying to make an unusual character – that’s the annoyance factor of those who want to push the spectrum. I am more of a “true straight.” I might make a fabulous character with all sorts of neat bits, but when it comes to playing? Most of the time I’m the tank.

3 It’s funny, because the Kobayashi Maru is a gaming scenario inside Star Trek.

4 You know, exploring everything, checking the foundation, looking for the (un)dead bodies in the crawlspace. “Buying houses,” is how you methodically raid a dungeon.

5 I have only had one complaint about that in an otherwise very good game… I don’t remember if I put it in my list of top five, but I’ll explain it separately.

 

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