My family warned me of the dangers of the student union building, but while they imagined the ancient perils of alcohol and billiards as threats to my academic performance, it was the gaming and social networks of the LCR that changed my life forever.
So with the Student Union building at Canterbury being slated for destruction, I thought I would do a gaming related post about that building and its memories. I invite other people to also share their gaming memories of the LCR in the comments below. Go on, tell us about that time you rolled a six to take Kamchatka…
In my first year, 1989, I remember turning the corner into the Student Union building into that small cramped corridor with the SF club, the fantasy gaming club, and KAOS. All three were to play a major part in my life.
The membership of all three clubs overlapped like a Venn diagram, and the resulting social network had as its major hub of day to day operations, the Lower Common Room (or just the LCR).
There was always a card game going, or in the offering. So I learnt to play 500, Black Bitch, and Scum. When Magic the Gathering came out I played it “casually” for “a while” and then realised I had lost about two months of my life. So I sold my cards for more than I paid for them. After that I largely avoided the lure of the collectible card game genre.
The flexible scheduling of student life made casual boardgaming feasible (for the serious monster boardgaming, there was Wednesday/Friday nights playing War in Europe at the Christchurch Wargaming Society’s premises downtown). The gaming club had a battered library of games any member could play (if they could track down someone with the cupboard key). If someone had to go to a lecture, you could nearly always find another player to
In particular I remember Kings & Things, War at Sea, the 13 hour game of Gammarauders, and that time playing Junta where I assassinated two ministers in one round, and banked 2/3 of the game’s currency into my Secret Swiss Bank Account the same move. After that it was several years before anyone would let me be Intelligence Minister again. Off campus there was that Diplomacy game where I held onto one supply centre as Austria-Hungry for six years. Six years! And then I retook Budapest in the last turn of the game.
The games library was good for poor students, and let us try a lot of games we could not otherwise afford. New Zealand being on the end of the distribution chain, games were always hard to source and expensive, and it was not uncommon for there to only be one or two copies in the country of a good but out of print game.
The KAOS game used its game of paranoia and backstabbing to recruit people for parties, which only sometimes featured backstabbing and paranoia, but always had drinking and The Sisters of Mercy. Given that I was club President (“Dictator”) for a year in 1993, it had a pretty big effect on my life. As being Dictator got me involved in student politics (rolling the Clubs Officer unintentionally after a dispute over noticeboards because I read the UCSA Constitution like it was a set of rules for a wargame. Sorry about that Peter.), which got me into running for Exec (while I was in Austria that August), where $10 worth of photocopied posters put up by Wombat got me onto Exec by 10 votes. I just beat my friend Craig, who later thanked me eternally, as in 1994 the UCSA Executive set new records for dysfunctionality in student politics. It was the kind of year where you cried so much, that looking back in later years you can only laugh at the stupidity and futility of it all. So that disaster led me to switching Universities and converting from a B- student into an A+ student, knocking out a Masters degree, and then back to Canterbury to do a PhD.
The gaming club was where the roleplaying games took place, and the club generally ran Tuesday and Thursday nights in one of the common rooms from 7-11pm, but in practice you could start gaming from mid-morning. The LCR was a common venue, as it was big and could hold a lot of people, and emant you did not have to move very far if you had already spent all day skipping your lectures in “KAOS corner”.
In think in my first year I played in an AD&D game run by Ben Vidgen, dealing with the Grey Crow menace. Ben later sued me over my use of the phrase “not guilty due to natural incompetence” to describe his handling of finances while Dictator, in a history of KAOS article for CANTA, the student newspaper. The UCSA helped out on the legal side, and a portfolio of evidence of incompetence was assembled and despatched to Ben’s lawyers and we never heard back about it. I still have the portfolio in a box in the dungeon. Ben later went on to join the tinfoil hat brigade as a publisher of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.
There was an epic Call of Cthulhu campaign with one of the guys behind the New Church of the Great Old Ones as GM (“It was awful” said a witness, S. D. Murophy). This was in the first year I went flatting, the year of the coup attempt in Russia (TV footage of that screened on the evening news a few minutes after my flatmate finished talking up her essay on how there could not be a coup in Russia. She cried but still got an A for good argument). That year I had a peak commitment of six games on six different nights. On the seventh night my tired body would collapse into bed at 6pm, so after a few weeks I quit a couple of the other games. You only get to have one first game of Call of Cthulhu, where the mythos is new and scary, and not something used to huck plush toys and t-shirts. My poor professor of ancient astronomy managed to get the lucky crit when tied to a gurney in an ambulance with a ghoul nurse leaning over him with a syringe.
There were some shorter games: DragonQuest with Stephen Rennell and Blitz the Dwarf. Who retired to be a toymaker after that unfortunate encounter with a “pig” in the dark, which turned out to be some giant cave Troll. My tactical advice to pursue before it regenerates was extremely misplaced.
There was a cameo as a priest in the Seven Paladin’s game run by Fitz. Some GMs are tough but fair, Fitz was tougher. It was the first D&D game I played in, where the players would spend three hours debating the ethics of their proposed course of action, and then would do a frontal assault against overwhelming odds. Remember, that talk was all about ethics, not tactics.
But the big game of my undergraduate days was Richard Bool’s epic multi-year Mega-Traveller campaign with up to a dozen players on the same ship. I played Vargr and charisma games, acting like I was Captain when I was only 3rd Engineer. The number of players meant things often bogged down, consensus was difficult to get, and every now and then the party had a meltdown and an internal bloodletting. I have to confess, that in hindsight, point a Light Assault Gun at the cockpit window, and asking for the microphone to tell the Imperial Navy patrol that “We were there to loot the ships in their orbital cemetery” was not a brilliant move on my part. Cue boarding action, arrests, and the three-way fight in the jail cell over apportioning blame for that escapade.
There was a game of HERO in a Traveller/Star Wars mash-up with Stephen Rennell as GM, where I played a Vargr called Rex, and learned lessons about the perils of advantage/disadvantage character building systems.
Carl de Visser’s Vampire game, playing young vampires terrified their ancient sire was going to wake up and eat them. That was before VtM hit New Zealand, so when VtM did arrived I looked at it and yawned. I had already seen the best ideas of the setting, and the system was confusing at best.
Then there was that weird experimental game where everyone was a set of memories in a virtual reality, ran by the lead singer of Niobe Wept. Looking back I can see how that game taught a lot of people the importance of story over system.
The Campaigns I ran were limited:
- a short-lived GURPS Illuminati in Bentley’s (highlight, the player who found a jelly dish in a science lab, and ate some of the toxic bacteria it contained), illustrated the difficulty of trying to escalate the weird dial in a continuing campaign (in much the same way RAW’s Illuminatus trilogy fell flat in the third volume).
- WHFRP 1st edition for a year on Friday nights at the CWS clubrooms (and then I discovered that Friday nights were better spent at parties)
- A SF homebrew game using a 2d10 mechanic, where the players were defending a planet attacked by aliens, which demonstrated to me that designing a good system was harder than it looked
- I tried Harnmaster, but it’s the expensive high detail low fantasy middle ages game no one plays
After reading about Australian Freeforms in the Breakout magazine, I had a go at running LARPs, mostly on the Saturday nights of wargaming conventions. Three highlights from these terrible, awful attempts on my part at plot and characters for thirty people:
- Stephen Hoare asking me if there really were Dragons in the game, as I had doodled a “Here Be Dragons” on the game map. I said “Maybe”, and Stephen went off and started telling people that not only were the Dragons real, but he controlled them. Every time someone tried to confirm this I just said “I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of Dragons along the Kingdom’s border…”
- The Space Station Casablanca game, where everyone was trying to get exit visas before the Galactic Jihad arrived. The game ended with only two people on board the Shuttle, the pilots were dead, and the Shuttle was sabotaged.
- Running an Ankh-Morpork game and getting Terry Pratchett to sign a copy of the game rules.
I also ran a SF play-by-mail wagame called Housewar. The map had wormholes and planetary systems, with small empires ruled by noble families of telepaths. I ran three versions of the game from 1992-1994. I also experimented in running my own commercial PBM game as an alternative to unemployment, and quickly determined that starvation was likely. This was because I was hand moderating each turn, which was insanely intensive use of time, double checking all the results and adjusting for errors. “Whoops, misread a rule, gotta reroll 186 dice”.
Lesson learned: if you give players nukes, they will use them. Its incredibly hard to put the real life consequences of mass destruction into a game. Perhaps if everyone ponied $5 at the start of the game, with a promise that you would give it to a charity they hated if they used nukes first…
While I have often designed a Housewar IV, the amount of time it would require for to now to do what I consider a good job, has put me off the massive commitment to running one again. The game expanded as my knowledge of design and strategy expanded, and reflected the games I was playing.
HW I and II were built around a WWII naval warfare mechanic lifted from World in Flames, while HW III borrowed the WWI logistics/attrition game from an SPI WWI version of the monster game War in Europe. I did a newsletter every turn, which was essential because I changed half the rules every turn. Looking back, I now realise that my players were very patient and generous with my constant changing of the game.
Perhaps I could turn Housewar again as a one-shot mega-game…
The early 1990s were still largely D&D focused, and in the traditional competition model. People were scored, and the highest scoring players went into a final, and the best player got a reasonable prize. This encouraged a very over-the-top convention playstyle, designed to attract attention and/or make the GM laugh.
The “Edge of Darkness” game (co-written by Steve and Sean?) that ported the TV thriller of that name into a nuclear reactor under the University, is still probably the best convention game I have ever seen. But the in-jokes meant you really had to be there to get the experience.
The Interregnum of 1995-1996
I was two years away at Waikato studying defence policy and strategy (in part because that was as close as you could get to a game design course in mid-90s New Zealand). While there were gamers there, the gaming largely took place off-campus. I ran a MegaTraveller campaign for an odd mix of players (a conservative farmer, a skinhead recovering from a heroin addiction, a couple of heavy metal fan chemistry students) and played in a lot of weird little homebrew system (I was an accountant in one, a slave to a merchant family, but the only person in the party with literacy).
This was when I was involved in running Campus Crusade for Cthulhu. We sold a lot of t-shirts.
1997-2001 Return to the LCR
My PhD years, in theory I was quite busy, but with an office on campus and a flat five minutes away, it was always good to just chill in the LCR.
Stephen Rennell’s Monday night RQ campaign (classic Orlanthi rebel exiles in Pavis, we did Borderlands and River of Cradles, and then went back home with the money, finishing up with rolling that 01% critical hit with the mythic golden arrow to kill a star while on a heroquest, and learning the secrets of crop rotation). Those memories made me a sucker for the recent RQ 2 Kickstarter.
I ran a second MT campaign, by the end of which I finally figured out that the combat system was utterly broken. Years later I read that it had never been playtested. Which was a shame because large parts of the rest of the system were good. While I still have a flicker of interest in news about the Third Imperium universe, I think my days of Traveller are done because my SF interests are more in tune with the transhumanism of Eclipse Phase or Mindjammer than the 1970s six ton computers of Traveller.
My LARPs had evolved into what I called Grand Strategy games. Essentially a giant boardgame with 5+ factions, with some LARP elements, played as an evening game at conventions.
While Flower Power was probably my best ever game (a planet settled by hippies fighting a world war with 1940s technology and Hammer’s Slammer’s offworld mercenaries), my favourite moment came from The Decline & Fall of the Solar Empire. This used a home built system called Neutral Zone that had a staship combat system that deployed ships and decoys face down. You fired shots to flip the counters over, and if you found a ship, then you activated a big gun to kill it dead.
For Solar Empire, we had four teams of players (rebels) fighting against the GMs (Starlords) who followed an exact script for how the imperial fleet moved and fought (allowing the rebels to invent better tactics or to manipulate Imperial fleets away from key targets).
Now the decoy system relied on all the counters being exactly the same size, and all of the thousands of counters were indeed exactly the same size. Except the Emperor’s personal flagship which was about 2mm smaller per side for some reason. The rebels got a but too pushy, and triggered a counter-attack by the Imperial reserve fleet, with the Emperor, and halfway through the battle, as all four rebel fleets were being demolished, one of the rebels noticed that a counter was every so slightly smaller than the others, and fired a shot at it.
One of the Starlords turned to me and asked if the Emperor should leave. I replied with a Grand Moff Tarkin quote: “Evacuate in our moment of triumph, never!”
The rebels destroyed the Flagship, and I ruled the Starlords would then turn on each other, leading to a last minute unexpected rebel triumph. Most epic finish to any of my games.
2002-2015 the adulting years
Most of my post-university time was spent in Wellington, with the exception of the 2006/2007 Year in the sucking hell hole that is London, UK.
I did come back from Wellington for game conventions, but they were now often held outside the UCSA building due to cost/security concerns. Cleaning costs also meant the LCR was often closed and KAOS regrouped in the upper café (always a warm and sunny spot). But one day on a return trip I found the doors unlocked and I went in and sat down on one of the chairs. As I relaxed the room filled with ghosts and echoes of past conversations, every corner of the room was rich in memory…
Then came the Earthquakes and for safety reasons the UCSA building was closed. KAOS relocated under the Library, and the gaming conventions moved to the Teacher’s College. As more of my friends had left University, my immediate social connections diminished and Wellington is much more my home these days.
Changes in gaming – my early uni years saw a big expansion in gaming topics, Cyberpunk, Vampire, etc, and its only kept diversifying. The early 90s was still a time when entire genres lacked game settings or systems (although GURPS was rapidly filling the setting voids with the most popular unplayed game system in the world) and on rec.games.frp.advocacy the debates that would lead to the indie movement of the 2000s were raging.
Now when I go to gaming conventions I almost never see D&D, Traveller, or any of the other classic games of the 1980s/90s being played. The modern New Zealand games convention is all about the one shot game, with a game system tailored to make that specific experience as rich as possible, but without the ongoing social network of the long campaign. No one plays for points to get into the final anymore.
What made the LCR good for games? It was not a place that got through traffic, so less disturbance from noise or gawkers, but it was still within 20m of a café or a bar, or a few minutes walk away from lectures. It was, however, cold in winter, and the lighting was on the dim side after sunset. Then there were the freezing late night conversations in the car park outside, after security had evicted us from the building, where we suddenly realised its almost 1am and we really should go home.
I just can’t imagine what I would be like now without the LCR and all the friendships formed there over a few cards and some dice. Almost everything about me now as an adult, started with a turn down a corridor in the UCSA building, and seeing the club tables, and NML, wearing mirrorshades, holding a black water pistol, and grinning.