Ben Burch is an actor based in Los Angeles, CA who loves playing games. Check him out on “Dragons and Things” every Friday night 6 pm PST at facebook.com/DaTDragonShow.
As an actor and a fan of nerd culture, I have been blessed in many ways for the past three years. One way, and how some of you might recognize me, is that I was honored to be part of a show called “Dragons and Stuff” all last year. It is now “Dragons and Things,” and we play a homebrew campaign live on Friday nights for our dedicated, wonderful fans. I am also blessed by playing Yukon Cornelius in the national tour of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the Musical,” based on the the ani-magic movie, every November and December. It is a blast. However, the drawback to having these two exhilarating jobs is time constraints. I cannot do both at the same time. But this year, I decided to combine my two worlds into an experience I will never forget.
I knew I wouldn't be able to exist without Pathfinder for two months. Playing consistently for so long ignited my passion for the story. I loved being a PC and feared becoming the evil, soul-stealer that led the group. But when Humble Bundle advertised their Paizo sale for Extra Life, I decided to strap on my GM boots and give it a go. I scoured over books. I carefully plotted who my first group would be. I dreamed of machinations of torment for my future players. Most importantly, I devised a plan. I would get my cast mates of “Rudolph” as excited about Pathfinder as I am and run my friends through an epic quest. I knew it would be difficult, but when is GMing ever not difficult?
Through rehearsals, I helped these new players through character creation and backstory. Then it was time for my wife (one of those players) and I to pack our lives into two bags and three carry-ons and venture forth. You can imagine how hard it is to pack up the necessary equipment for Pathfinder as well as preparing for a two month away-from-home endeavor, but we made it work. We arrived at the airport, received quizzical looks for having a map sticking out of my backpack, and were stopped by airport security to search my bag of d20s. Through all of this, nothing was going to stop me.
I sat down at our first official game in Fort Worth, TX, and felt prepared. I asked the front desk for an area where a group could meet to play a game. They peered at one another with questioning glances. To them, I looked like a bearded sack of trouble. As I saw their minds about to say “no,” I clarified that it wasn't drinking games or anything nefarious but to play a nerdy RPG. They heaved a sigh of relief, giggled slightly, and showed me a nice room where we could play.
Preparing encounters was easy, but I wanted the environment to be pristine. I played with lighting, something that was surprisingly easy on the road. Once, I even brought down lamps from three separate rooms. I adjusted the dimness of two corners of the room, completely extinguished a panel of lights, and set the lighting above the table to a perfect level where it would draw my players in without straining their eyes. I had my iPad filled with important Paizo documents on one side, my phone with Syrinscape on the other, and beautiful Legacy of Fire Pathfinder Dice. The work was worth it when my players arrived flabbergasted. It was time to unleash the Beginner Box on my friends.
There are many interesting problems that occur when you are playing a game without home-field advantage, the first of which I learned that night. If you are not clear about the time frame in which you plan to play, someone will come and kick you out of your beautiful playing space. Tension mounted as a group of goblins trapped and disarmed twos of the five PCs. The rest watched in horror as I scurried in for the kill, when suddenly security barged in and told us we had been there too long and must leave. So much for dealing with generous front desk staff. It was getting late, but we couldn't end the session like that. We packed up the mat, dice, computer, iPad, phone, character sheets, minis and GM screen and headed upstairs. Our rooms were very small. It was difficult to fit everyone inside, and I could tell that the delay had ruined the moment. Not to mention it gave time for the cleric to think up obscuring mist and escape scot free. They were tired and the moment gone. Yet, the story was all they could talk about the next morning. They were so excited about the growth of their characters, the story that was unfolding, and NPCs that they loved to hate. So, we decided to play again that night. We had a four hour bus drive from Fort Worth to Austin, and we were ready.
We hopped from one location to the next playing games. We went from Austin, in a room deemed “The Murder Room” due to the staff requiring that we be locked in, to Fayetteville, Arkansas where we practically played poolside. We had days of rest in between; after all, you cannot play a three hour session after three shows of “Holly, Jolly Christmas” being sung into your face during the day. We spent most of our time travelling by bus, extolling our tales to curious cast mates, and late nights/early mornings would be filled with passerbys peaking their heads into conference rooms to figure out what undead creature these strange guests were
talking about. The game ravaged forward, and they ended the Beginner Box triumphantly. In my heart, I knew there was more story to tell, so I continued their journey with a homebrew. But, many other cast mates wanted a part of the tapestry I was weaving for their companions. It didn't take me long to decide that I could multitask and take another group through the same box. Afterall, I knew the module. How hard could it be?
On the next bus ride, a particularly long travel day, I helped five brand new players roll up characters, along with leveling up my five previous players on a bumpy bus. I was exhausted, but I knew (due to time) that I should start right away. They went to the closest game store to purchase dice, and when that store had a terrible selection (as some small town stores do), they found a different one. Honestly, it was all going swimmingly. One group played at nights whenever we could sleep in the next day, while the other group would play the mornings on those same days. I lost some sleep, but didn't care. My friends were having the time of their lives. Unfortunately for me, the most distracting and frustrating moments for both parties happened on each of their respective “last nights.”
The second party, with minimal time, was able to get through the Beginner Box. It was in Columbus, Ohio, that their story, with me at the helm, would close. I knew the game itself had gripped their attention and they would want to continue to play, but Ohio proved to be difficult. The fanciest hotel we stayed in was also the stingiest. They told me I could play in a private dining room, yet withheld information that this room was actually public and the doors could not be closed. They showed me to another group area (this one had kids climbing over the chairs) and told me this was another option. After an hour and a half haggling with the front desk, I was able to secure a room. They forced me to pay for a cleaning fee, but the story was more important than a measly twenty five dollars. It was an interesting situation to be in. Normally, I would feel confident and prepared for a session, but this aggravation uneased me. In a moment of clarity, I realized this night wasn't about me or my struggles. It was about their tale. When we ended, emotions around the room were high. Blood was spilled, characters died, and heroes formed.
The original party felt similar sensations, but the situation was much different. With the tour ending, we played our last session in a LaQuinta check in/breakfast nook in Abilene, Texas. This group took their characters from Texas to Alabama, Michigan, Wisconsin and many other states only to end up in Texas again. The perfect moment arose in game. The sorceress walked slowly around the spirit of her deceased husband as he revealed the true nature of her djinni bloodline. As I was about to drop the bomb, a disheveled man barged to the front desk complaining about water pressure in his room. Later an elf laid unconscious at the feet of a bearded devil as the group slowly backed away from the deadliest villain they faced. With his evil intentions made clear, he struck the rouge with a coup de grace. The players jaws dropped. And they jumped with surprise as the front desk staff clambered about cleaning the coffee machine. Obviously, this was not an ideal situation, but I had already learned this lesson. The words flowed from my mouth without fear or hesitation of what these other guests or staff thought. The rest of the world dissipated as I sat with my friends at a real table that now existed in an imaginary world only we inhabited. The players cried, laughed, died, rose again, and defeated the enemy.
In the same sense, I defeated my own enemies. I had many fears when deciding to GM, especially in such a unique situation. The fear of telling pure strangers that I was playing an RPG in their hotels lived in me. The fear that I could not adequately perform the story was real. The fear that I was not good enough existed. In the end, all fears fell away as I learned that you don't need to be perfect to do this. You don't need the perfect map or the perfect knowledge. You don't even need a quiet, secluded space. You need people who are willing to dive in with you and swim in the deep end.
I guarantee that more of my friends are interested in playing. They haven't told me so, but I know that they are out there. I refuse to let time get in my way, to let my fears drive me away from something I love. As GMs, we are duty-bound to tell stories to players who are interested. And if doing two or three shows a day, traveling on a bus to a new city or state every night, and living out of a suitcase didn't stop me, what's your excuse?