I thought it would be different. We had an Organized Play guy at White Wolf Game Studio whose job consisted, in part, of arranging tournament events all over the world for the Vampire collectible card game. He’d be gone for weeks at a time, living off his per diem, refereeing official tournaments with cash prizes and drinking scotch instead of eating food. He came back one time with a decorative mirror from Romania, painted with a vampire theme as I recall, and a T-shirt that said “Never Leave Hungary.” That’s what I thought it would be like to play games for money.
The truth is something else. The game-playing job is the Wumpus. You hunt for it, but just when you think you’ve got the job, the job gets you.
When you’re working as a pen and paper RPG developer, very little of your time is spent actually playing the game. The work of getting a game out the door eats up any potential play time – and sometimes the desire to spend more time with the game at all. Getting people at my old haunt to actually play the games we made was like getting kids to eat their vegetables.
My job as a developer wasn’t to play the game, but to produce books. I spent my time editing text and devising new gameplay elements. Play testing was the job of writers’ gaming groups and dedicated civilian play testers. My weekly game night was preempted every other week by deadline-induced panic.
Things were not always thus. Every summer for eight years, I went to the Gen Con game convention. I paid my own way exactly one time. The last few years, I went as a staffer for one game company or another. At the turn of the century, I went as a “demo monkey” – one of the plainclothes volunteers who runs demonstrations of games at a convention in exchange for a badge and maybe a hotel room – for the largest of the hobby-game companies, Wizards of the Coast.
I was given a hotel room to share with three other guys. I slept curled up on the floor or in the bathtub with my feet propped up, afraid to share a bed with the strangers I got lumped in with. I didn’t appreciate that, back then especially, I was a strange dude, too.
I had actually volunteered to run Star Trek roleplaying game demos for Last Unicorn Games, but they had been bought out by Wizards of the Coast shortly before the convention, so we, the demo monkeys, were being put up at the show with Wizards’ money. The number of demos was remarkable. Wizards of the Coast seemed dedicated to promoting their newly acquired Star Trek games, having set up half a ballroom with five or six demo tables, each one packed with players for each four-hour game session.
As a demo monkey, your actual job is to sell games by playing them. Sort of. The dealer at your casino poker table isn’t playing cards; she’s working. It’s like that. We monkeys were putting on a show, two or three shows a day, for four days.
More than the other demo monkeys, I think, I was into the “art” of running the games – concerned with immersion and narrative structure and character details. It was pretentious, sure, but I wanted to run memorable sessions. I didn’t want to be that guy who’s doing the demo spiel but looking over your head at the passersby for someone better to talk to. I thought, like a desperate off-off-Broadway actor, that I might get discovered if I put on a good performance. As if some game company scout would notice me and say, “Son, you’ve got a lot of talent. Come and work for us!” But the game pros seldom came down to the demo room, and when they did, they didn’t stay for long.
The trick to selling a game – especially an RPG – is to give the audience what it wants. If your players talk in character, so do you. If they want to fire phasers at every moral dilemma they see, give them things to shoot at. If they want to partake in a three-hour farce of Klingon comedy antics, you make the best bat’leth and blood-wine jokes you can manage. (“I know a Federation codeword that’ll get us what we want: ‘Please!'”)
The morning of the second-to-last day of the show, flyers started circulating around the exhibit hall. They were coming out of the Decipher company booth, but somebody had left a stack of them in our demo room, too. Bright yellow things loaded with press-release text and exclamation points. They reported that the Star Trek license had been pulled from Wizards of the Coast following the Last Unicorn buyout and handed over to Decipher, who produced the Star Trek CCG at the time. Decipher was letting people know they shouldn’t get attached to the current game – and probably shouldn’t be buying the rulebooks for a line that was about to die.
What were we selling the games for, then?
Gradually and quietly, we realized that we didn’t care about that so much. We weren’t there to sell games. We wanted to play with our roles as demo monkeys. We wanted to play with the expectations of the ticket-holders. We wanted to play at being storytellers and game designers, and put on a show.
We decided to hijack the tables we’d been given to run. We were going to steal the time we had to work with and blow it on playtime. We took the stock scenarios and rigged them to pay out for us.
That night, we stayed up in the empty game room planning our heist. We developed a timetable, so we’d each know where we had to be at what time, and set the coffee timer I’d borrowed from my day job at Starbucks to beep at key moments to help us stay synchronized. We prepared a few simple gestures to use as secret signs so we demo monkeys could communicate without the ticket-holders knowing what was up.
The next morning, we walked in as a crew, practically in slow motion, like tuxedoed thieves on the way to pull off a job. Plenty of people, not having heard the news about the license-pull or perhaps not caring, had showed up to play Starfleet officers and Klingon starship crews. We fanned out, took our places at our designated tables, silently made eye contact with each other, one by one, and exchanged knowing nods. I held up the coffee timer and thumbed the button. The countdown started.
For the first hour, we ran our games as usual, teaching the rules and getting players into character. When the timer went off, we started our real game: merging all the demo tables into one epic Star Trek experience. When the Starfleet ship from the Next Generation era encountered a time-displaced ship from the Kirk era, each ship was crewed by players at a different table in the demo room. When the Klingons showed up, they were played by the folks at that table in the back. We had five narrators working together to build a single, massively multiplayer experience in pen and paper play. Some of it was PVP, some of it PVE, all of it hectic and enthusiastic. The players loved it, sloppy though the story was, full of time vortices and omnipotent aliens and technobabble bullshit.
For those four hours, we were paid to play.
That night, while helping tear down the Wizards booth to get myself into the company dinner, I relayed the story to some of company staff. “Sounds like you had a good time,” one said, packing books into boxes. How did I expect him to care? His game line had just been axed.
After my free meal, one of the company’s PR reps shook me off their party. She was a big girl with confidence and moxie, who took me by the hands and thanked me for the hard work and said something like “maybe we’ll see you next year.” I think her name was Terry. Her guile was great. I left, feeling more like I’d been thanked than ditched, went back to my barista gig and green apron and kept dreaming of being a game designer.
Years later, I’d try to shake a hanger-on between after-parties and, only when I was trying to fall asleep on the plane back home, realize that I was on the other side now. That I was trying to cut loose some fan volunteer, only without any of Terry’s charm.
As a demo monkey, you’re sort of invisible. I met a lot of people at industry parties, from game writers I idolized to the guy Darth Vader choked in Star Wars, but I was still a nobody. People would drop a name and I could say, “Yeah, I know him,” and mean it, up to a point. But that person rarely knew me as anything more than a face that he’d seen every summer for years but couldn’t quite place a name to. Some of those contacts met me for the first time two or three times.
The last few years, my employers sent me to Gen Con to sit on panels, sign books, sell books and, still, run a few games. The morning of every game, it felt like work. I was on a schedule; attendance was mandatory.
Looking back at the promotional campaigns I ran as a developer, I remember the weight on my chest, the stage fright. I was nervous because I still wanted to put on a good show. I still get nervous running games for friends and students. At the time, I thought it had become a slog, but part of me still cared – I was worried about delivering fun. But with that worry came a good time. Play was part of my job, but I couldn’t see that; I was deep inside the belly of the Wumpus by then.
I’ve been to Gen Con as a tagalong and an employee; as a writer treated to dinner and a developer doing the treating; as the new guy who doesn’t know anything and as a conspirator keeping company secrets. I’ve been to the show as a pauper and a player, a developer and a dope. But I’ve never left hungry.
Will Hindmarch is a freelance writer and game developer. He was lead developer of Vampire: The Requiem for White Wolf Game Studio. Do not talk to him about zeppelins or we will be here all day.