Nessun Dorma

During the school year, we could only play Fridays and Saturdays. But when summer came, every single day was up for grabs.

Not for scheduling normal games — those we could play any day of the week, even during the school year. No, I’m talking about the most magical of beasts and that staple of my gaming youth, the all-night game.

Arrive in the evening and just keep playing until the sun comes up. Hunker down in some room and just stay there. No one enters, no one leaves. No distractions. No supervision. The distilled elixir of pure game space.

These were not sleepovers. No one brought pajamas because no one was supposed to go to sleep. Did it happen? Yes. Did we play games where the DM had to wake up multiple people in a row just to get through a single round of combat? Yes. Did people fall asleep in their seats, hands clutching dice, until they were roused and bolted upright croaking “I hit it with my sword!!!” (even if there wasn’t a fight) and lobbed their favorite d20 across the table, all the while claiming, swearing, that they had not been asleep, that they had “only been resting their eyes for a minute”, and they knew exactly where we were in the game? Yes. But those were the exceptions. The sleepyheads were mocked. We knew we were not there to sleep.

I played all-night games almost as soon as I started playing D&D back in 1980. The very first was unplanned, almost accidental: we just kept playing and playing and playing until the sun came up, because we were blessed with the intense focus and lack of real world responsibility that came with being 11 years-old in the summertime. That game started as a mundane dungeon crawl, but as the magical hours of the night unfolded we transformed it into an epic saga, complete with back stories for wandering monsters and a plot invented on the spot.

That set a high bar for me and all-night games were a core part of our repertoire ever since. Here’s how common it was for us: in middle school and high school, if you asked someone if they could play “Saturday”, it automatically meant Saturday night i.e. overnight. If you said “Satur-DAY”, with a weird emphasis on the second half of the word, that meant a day game. Sure, we played a lot of day games, but the all-night games were the treasured times.

I’ve often said that one of the most educational things about playing role-playing as a kid is that you have to figure out how to deal with other people right quick or the game falls apart. When I was a kid, we never played with adults (except maybe councilors at Shippensburg, but even though they looked like adults to us most were just college kids). There was no calming, mature figure at the table to keep us from acting out. We had to keep ourselves and each other in line just to keep the game going. To our credit, I can only remember two times that our games broke down into actual physical brawls (yes, there were two), but there could be a lot of arguing and not paying attention and assorted other bad behavior. Because we were kids. The GM was ostensibly the authority figure, but yeah they were kids too.

All-night games had even less supervision. The parents of whoever was hosting the game were asleep. We were in the bedroom or basement or den, entirely up to our own devices. We were a law unto ourselves.

As kids, the focus that an all-night game creates, when all the world’s asleep and there are no distractions or interruptions and nowhere else to go, was magical. Pure gateway-into-fantasy stuff. But as adults with busy lives and cell phones, all-night games are even more powerful. It’s one thing to declare “gaming is sacred time, no interruptions”, but when you’re gaming at 3 am you don’t even have to worry that someone is going to have to field a call or have somewhere else to be. All the world’s asleep. West Marches, New Century City — both had their share of all-night game sessions.

In middle school and high school in the early 80s, our regular gaming group was almost entirely male (though ironically my first all-night game was 50/50 male/female). Would we have been allowed to have mixed-gender all-night games, at that age, unsupervised? It seems unlikely. In college the gender ratio changed entirely and almost every game was mixed, probably because A) college, but also because we did a ton of legwork to bring all sorts of new people into gaming via the Reed Game Society and the Anon. But that’s another story.

We didn’t have internet back then, so every gaming group existed in a kind of isolation, establishing their own culture of play without even realizing other people were playing differently. So looking back now I wonder, was anyone else even playing all-night games? Was it a thing, or was it just us? Are there gamers out there even now, hunkered around a table, playing until the sun comes up?

    Ben Robbins | June 18th, 2019 | | show 11 comments