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This Gaming Life: Party of Smartness
The Smart Party started life as the remnants of three, maybe four gaming groups. We had all met through University and the years immediately following that sent us all scurrying back to the provinces to find work and make something of ourselves. As I’d given every lecture and tutorial a good hard swerve for the past three years in lieu of playing Shadowrun and Rolemaster, this wasn’t going to be quite as easy as it should have been. Luck came in the two forms: the rules of student loans meant you didn’t have to pay anything back until you were earning the national average wage, and I managed to secure a position with Games Workshop. Combine the two and I had decent hobby time, reasonable disposable income and as many ‘business’ trips to Nottingham as I could justify. And Nottingham was where the best gamers I had ever known were based.
We all got together as often as we could, maybe 6 or 7 of us, with sleeping bags, bottles of port and a desire to do two things: play the arse out of some roleplaying games, and then dissect and debate every last bit of them into the wee small hours. I think Gaz, Pete and I must have solved every roleplaying problem, and then invented some more, had a large scotch and then solved those too, at least a dozen times. If only we’d written any of it down.
A perennial topic of ours was the parlous state of Con gaming. Much as we loved our road trips, the quality of the games being run wasn’t really up to our expectations. At least one of us, the best GM I’ve ever played with, has always refused to attend Cons due to this aspect. We’ve tried to convince him of otherwise over the years, but he will never budge. And he was right too if I’m honest. I’m going back to the early nineties here, but for some reason Con gaming was not the multimedia, oft-baroque and scintillating fun-fest it so often is these days. The GMs were often utterly incompetent, both from a rules perspective (“I like to play fast and loose…”), a story perspective (“It’s all kind of grey…”) or just a social one (“Call me Fluffy.”) These irredeemably awful games were great for war stories in the bar afterwards, and they had their own kind of you-had-to-be-there shared experience vibe which we all love to lean on even now.
Some games were brilliant though. When we would all reconvene between slots, there was usually a single game among our experiences that had the rest of us green with envy. Cthulhu games could go either way. GURPs was reliably average. And for ages, if you weren’t into the various Living games, that was all you got! We would try for demo’s, run by stall staff usually. That was no guarantee of quality either. There wasn’t much we wouldn’t do to try to get a great game. One of the big obstacles, certainly at GenCons, was the bizarre practice of not allowing us to play together as a group of mates. It was like those stag dos where you have to slip into clubs in pairs lest you get your collar felt for, I dunno, bringing too much cash and laughs to the party or something.
It took us a few Cons to realise that the single best way to get good games was to demand them. With beer as bribery. We would buttonhole the organisers and offer to buy them drinks if they could get us a decent GM and a group booking. It worked, and we would always look after our GM too. We told him or her our intentions, that we would be proactive, that we would get into character, that we wanted to use the rules and we would do whatever we could to guarantee a memorable session for everyone. Drinks anyone? To be fair, the GMs (when the blood had returned to their face) sat up a bit straighter and got stuck in. Perhaps the games would have been good anyway, but I like to think we got things going with a bit of hymn-sheet tubthumping.
Back then, six players was the norm, and often that meant our little RPG boarding party would have to have a lone stranger at the table. Frankly, we tried to get them onside, but they were on probation from the off if I’m honest. This sixth body would invariably not have a dice or pencil to their name. Not a great start as we lined up our specially sourced polyhedrals and bespoke notebooks. It only went downhill when they always chose the lone wolf to play and nipped off into the woods to caress their sniper rifle for some furtive lonely fun. We ignored them after a while, they never seemed to mind.
Turns out, the real key to Con gaming nirvana is to run games yourselves. Seriously, it took a little while for us to realise this! We were labouring under the misapprehension that you had to do some kind of apprenticeship before you were allowed to pop up your screen in public. Having eventually figured out that Con organisers would do anything to have a GM who didn’t stink and wasn’t running their eighth slot that day just to get a free room and bragging rights, we were in. We took the ‘play hard, celebrate the game’ ethos to the GM’s chair. Each of us had different styles of course, but we would all make an effort to provide a top quality game, one that would be remembered by both us, and the players. Some of our revolutionary and hitherto undisclosed techniques included: introducing ourselves by name to the players; taking breaks and asking for feedback; thanking people for playing; buying a round of coffees; washing that morning; wearing a nice shirt. It started to get us noticed. People requested our games.
I don’t know who came up with the name The Smart Party, but it was the sort of thing we all used to say at tables, “what would the smart party do?” I think we also looked at people who had successfully gotten themselves a little brand already. Folk like the Kult of Keepers, who could always be relied upon to put together a unique Cthulhu experience at Cons. We started putting the term on sign-up sheets, and making mention of ourselves on blogs and fora. This garnered not a little controversy when we started reviewing our Con experiences, and frankly, being a little more honest about our opinions than perhaps the gaming community was ready for. I’d like to say any criticisms were always meant in the spirit of constructive feedback, but hey, no-one who actually took offence would believe me now or then.
At the end of the day, The Smart Party was just a group of like-minded RPG enthusiasts who had good standards of play, some decent GMing skills, a logo and a tendency to foist opinions on the unwary. At its best, it delivered some fabulous set piece games to grateful punters in many halls and tents. I’m conscious that I’m writing about it in the past tense. Not sure why that is. I don’t get to hang out with the old team so much these days, which I regret. But I know that if I rocked up to the right Con, if the stars were right, we could get the old gang back together and we could storm up a game like nobodies’ business.
That’s what the smart party does.