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Birthdays and decades

Last Wednesday was my birthday; I'm now 49. If you forgot, it's OK; birthdays are my affectation, and I don't expect everyone else to have the enthusiasm I do.

I spent the evening in the company of friends, playing Munchkin. Afterwards my best friend stayed for a while and we hung out. He did some measurements and sketches for my second tatoo. All in all, a pleasant and happy birthday.

I'm already thinking about my next birthday, my 50th. To understand why I'm planning my next birthday party year in advance, we have to set the Wayback Machine to 1979.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I started gaming in the early 1970's and by 1979 I was an avid gamer, as were most of my friends. So on Dec 3, 1979, I had a gaming party at my home for my 20th birthday. I'd spent the previous week cooking special dishes for the party. On the day itself, we spent the day playing different board games; we were all into RPGs, but I knew I'd be spending too much time in the kitchen to participate in one. (I'll save the story of the brownie balls and the monster cake for a future post.)

By 1989 I'd finished taking data for my thesis experiment at Fermilab in Chicago (though it would be another 7 years before my data analysis was over). I had gamer friends in both New York and Chicago. This time we held an two-city RPG, a Star Wars game. This was before the days of the Internet (it was also before West End Games ruined the Star Wars RPG rules), so we held the game over the phone. There was both a Chicago GM and a New York GM (me); some of the action was independent at both sites, while some was co-ordinated between the two groups. (I'll save the story of the Peking Duck for a future post.)

In 1999, I was involved with LARPs. I got the folks from Mystic Realms to help me present the story. The idea was that people could come as a character from any idea they had in time, space, or fantasy. If they did, they would have a role in the story, with LARP-style abilities that reflected that character. I rented a hall, had lots of food (far too much!), and set out drugstore cameras so folks could take pictures. You can see the results on this web page.

What will I do for my 50th birthday party? The reason why I ponder this now is that, for my other decade parties, I knew what I wanted to do months in advance; for my 40th, I had the idea two years in advance. Right now I have no clear idea of what I want to do.

Here are the bits and pieces that I want to fit together:
  • I want it to be another gaming party. The only other group social activity in my life that's more important than gaming is Wicca, and I am not going to hold a Wiccan ritual for my birthday. Aside from the fact that it would be using my religion out of pure hubris, I just don't want to do it.

  • The earlier portions of my life were characterized by some big social changes. No one who attended my 20th birthday party also attended my 30th; I had lost touch with them by that time. Two people who attended my 30th birthday also attended my 40th (and one more called in).

    In contrast, almost everyone who attended my 40th birthday party is still in my life and will be invited to my 50th, along with a bunch of new friends.

    In my mind, this creates some sense of continuity. I know that almost none of those who attended the party nine years ago will remember that plot for next year's party, but it would be nice to link the two somehow.

  • At my 20th and 30th birthday parties, all of the attendees were gamers. At my 40th, most of the attendees were not gamers. I'd say at most half got into the spirit of the story and game; the rest sort of tolerated it. They liked coming in costume; I think I can keep that concept.

  • If you take the time to read the plot of my 40th birthday party, you'll quickly come to the conclusion that there was too damn much.

    I wanted to give everyone something to talk about and something to do. Instead, I think it came off as confusing and opaque to anyone who wasn't a gamer. I also put enormous effort into telling stories that most of them never heard.

  • One reason why many of them never heard a chunk of the story is that about a third of the people who said they were going to come did not show up. I don't mean that some of my friends didn't accept the invitation; of course, many did not and I did not expect them to. I mean that about a third planned to come, created characters, I crafted a place in the plot for them, and then they canceled at the last minute.

    What can you do? It's a party, not a trial date. (Actually, if you read the plot, it was a trial date :-)!) But it meant that parts of the story didn't work.

  • One thing that clearly "failed" at the 40th birthday party was bringing in the complex rules of a LARP to the event. The concepts of hit points, mana, spells, combat actions, etc., were just too much to absorb. I made sure that none of these things mattered to the plot, but they were there as background.

    I may get Mystic Realms involved again in helping me with the 50th birthday party, but it won't be a full-fledged participatory LARP experience.
My thoughts at this point:
  • Keep it an (optional) costume party. If you come in costume, you can play as the character.

  • My original game design was based on the How to Host a Murder games, but I got too elaborate.

    Instead of a page or two of information for each character, write down "something you know" on a card, no more than a sentence or two. Hand out the cards during the party, with more cards handed out as time goes on. Keep it simple; keep it flowing.
What story do I tell? How do I tell it using "information cards"? How can I make it a mystery, or at least something to hold my friends' interest?

Most important (at least to me), how can I do it in such a way that it's their choice, not mine, as to how much they get involved in the telling of story?

You know, one event every decade is not often enough to playtest a concept!