For those who like reading play reports I wanted to direct your attention to James Mishler's blog, where is has posted a compilation of play reports so far from the sessions I'm running at Chimera Hobby Shop.
I've been running a biweekly game at the store and we've had four sessions. It's been a great experience so far. One of the things that I've always felt was true but couldn't quite get a bead on was the idea that there are many people out there who played old-school D&D and still would if they could. For whatever reason they don't have a group, or maybe they've lost touch with the scene when new editions came out. Other people who still prefer older editions may not even come to their local store anymore, except possibly to buy miniatures or another game that they're into. So far my experience at Chimera seems to confirm this (not just in recent weeks, but based on my discussions with James and observations about the store since September last year), as there are many old-schoolers who come in for other reasons and are lucky enough to have James there to explain the range of old-school products that are out there right now.
As a result of James and running games in the store we've brought in several people who played D&D "back in the day", not to mention some people who never gamed before at all. In our last session one gamer jumped in who is there on the same days James and I have run Labyrinth Lord over the last many months. He hadn't played in our sessions before, but this time he decided to give it a go. After talking with him it turns out that he did play first edition in the past but is now mainly into gaming with miniatures (Warhammer I think). He just wasn't interested in the new editions of D&D. He may not become a regular player, but our demo games were able to entice him back into the fold.
There are cases where a parent comes into the store who remembers playing old-school D&D in high school or college, and wants to introduce his/her child to RPGs now that he/she is old enough. James has turned more than one parent on to Labyrinth Lord in this situation. We're able to introduce a whole new generation to old-school gaming. Labyrinth Lord is doing fairly well in distribution, so I hope this is happening at other stores across the country.
Another thing I've learned is that it is impossible to determine all of this from internet feedback alone. There are a lot of people out there who use the internet to buy products, download resources, etc. but most never contact you or post on forums or blogs. Those of us who are active at communicating in this "community" on the internet can forget that we are the exception, not the norm. There is a whole silent audience out there. Some of the kids who show up at the game table in the store use free resources they've downloaded and that I'm not even aware of! Yet they've never posted anywhere in our community.
From an operational standpoint it can be challenging to run a large group for a demo game. James had been running Labyrinth Lord for several months before I started Stonehell, so the word had already been circulating in our community. Since I started we've always had at least eight people playing, and the last two times we've had 9 (plus play deaths require making new characters, taking table time). Things are always in flux, so even though a few people are pretty regular we always have new people or people who can come maybe every other time. What this means is that if they all show up at once I might find myself trying to run a group of 15-18!
If the numbers enlarge consistently it begs the question of how to handle it. Lucky for me James is here and if I wanted to split the party into two separate groups we could do that. Not everyone on the Labyrinth Lord Society Demo Team may have that option. I've thought about other possibilities, such as weekly signup. Since one of the goals of demo games in a store is to introduce new people, one might even have a policy that new people are allowed to reserve a spot by signing up, and returning people can join as space allows. It's hard to make a choice like that because it would suck to turn anyone away, which is why I have not tried it at this point. However, for other demo people it might be an option if you find yourself with this abundance of riches in players.
It's been a long time since I ran a group this big. My ideal group size would probably be about five if I were running the game at home. The added challenge to the large size is that the players and characters can change each session. The upside is that the demo sessions are extremely effective in getting the word out about Labyrinth Lord, the store has sold a lot of books, but the downside especially as time goes on is that due to the nature of the game I am limited in the way I can approach refereeing. There are areas I'd like to go into more depth, both with rules and complexity of the gaming environment, but when you are trying to keep a full table focused and moving you have to cut corners. It most cases for demo games it may not be necessary to increase complexity--but one reason I feel that way is because the regular attendees transition at some point from being new players to being seasoned players, and with large transient groups it is hard to add spice and keep things moving. One of the things this all boils down to is the question of whether you are able to demo a game to your best potential if the group size is not ideal.
Another challenge is the age range. We have two new players, one who is 10 years old and her mother, both never played any RPG before. It is absolutely delightful to see the enthusiasm of a young first time player. Everything is a novelty, from striking down your first zombie to buying a pony for your halfling adventurer. The hard part is indulging these natural desires to explore the small details of this new game while there are 8 other players, some only a little older but experienced RPGers, and others much older and have been playing for 30 years.
On the plus side, these are wonderful "problems" to have! One thing that is apparent is that there is fertile ground in my local area for old-school gaming and I will start thinking more seriously now about establishing a game convention. Probably something smaller and less formal the first few years, more like a "game day(s)" but we'll see how it goes.