3D NPCs. Never name them “The Blacksmith.”

Recently I’ve been devouring the contents of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and some of its contents (NO SPOILERS) have inspired me to do a little ranting. The good kind.

Dungeon Masters love to go online and wail about rampant Murder-Hoboism in their group. There are a plethora of Youtube videos, articles, and forums discussing this “issue” at length. Usually I see that the discussions often focus around the Players and what they may or may not being doing. Categorizing problem players or bad habits. But it takes two to role-play a tango and the faults of the DM are too frequently overlooked. In my opinion it is a cardinal Dungeon Master sin to present players with 2D, boring NPCs. If you want your players to not murder everything with a pulse, you need to give them a reason to care. Make interesting NPCs and their first thought won’t be “I wonder how much gold he has and whether I can kill him before the guards find out.”

In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the writers/designers have done their due diligence in presenting interesting, memorable, and complicated NPCs. I’ve not yet read the whole book but by only Chapter 2 I am delighted with the role-playing possibilities it will afford me and our group. I will give one such example, without too much context, to illustrate my point.

Embric and Avi. A married couple in the city of Waterdeep. Embric is a male Fire Genasi, and Avi is a male Water Genasi. Together they operate an armorer and blacksmith shop. Their descriptions are very simple and to the point. Embric is descended from the efreet of Calimshan and is prone to mood swings. Avi worships Eldath, God of Peace, is laid back, and speaks plainly. And that’s about all that the book has to say about Embric and Avi. But immediately after reading these succinct paragraphs I was overwhelmingly inspired to role-play these characters. Inspired enough to make a blogpost about it. It also reminding me of an antidote to Murder-Hoboism.

Embric and Avi are interesting. I immediately have questions about them. How did they meet? How long have they been married? What does an argument look like between the two of them and what do they agree on? What does it look like when a Fire Genasi and a Water Genasi kiss? Are they very private when in their shop or do they show public affection? Do some patrons give them a wide berth and refuse to go to them? Do they play elemental pranks on one another? Wouldn’t their shop be incredibly steamy, what with all the moisture and warmth?

The fact that I have all these questions is a great indication that 1) I will enjoy role-playing them, and 2) my players will at least remember them if not fall in love with them. These are NPCs with gravitas, and with only 252 words the module has set me up nicely to almost completely rule out the possibility of a Murder-Hobo situation. Why?

Because the inclusion of diversity and complex social situations force players to play the game in a more “realistic” way. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier when NPCs are three dimensional. The Grognard might say “oh well that’s ridiculous a Water Genasi and a Fire Genasi would never fall in love.” and to them I would say your fantasy is painfully wrong. I would also say the cliche’ “Opposites Attract” and I would also ask them if they have ever been in a real human relationship.

Humans and relationships are messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. We say “I’m going on a diet” and then crumble at the sight of a red velvet cake. We say “I’m not going to call her.” and then we do in a moment of weakness. We do and say things that make no logical sense, spurred on by emotional undercurrents that are years in the making and sometimes can only notice their ripples in hindsight. Human interactions are varied, include subtext, and are almost never simply what they may appear to be. Why, as a DM, would you rob your players of the rich experience of meeting an NPC they actually care about?

Let’s talk about Panda for a moment.

Panda is a Giff gunsmith savant I created for my Spelljammer campaign. He is loud, boisterous, and has zero social tact. He always says the most obvious things at the most inopportune times. My players grew to love him and he made several repeat appearances. Later in the campaign, I had established our world as having “multiple timelines” existing concurrently and they could be glimpsed in weird ways. I hinted that in an alternate timeline Panda had joined forces with the heroes to thwart a great evil, and he had solo piloted a ship rigged with smokepowder into an enemy armada. He sacrificed his life in order to save them from an unwinnable scenario. My beautiful wife, playing two characters in the campaign, immediately wept in real life. She wailed “We don’t deserve him!” and continued to cry. Somehow I had stumbled upon a character that was real in our minds and we gave a shit whether he lived or died. We care about Panda on a very real and emotional level. That’s because he’s not “The Gunsmith.” He’s Panda. He is real in our minds because he has a past, he has hopes and dreams, and he has his faults and failings.

Next time you’re tempted to use a placeholder NPC with zero personality, probe deeper and try to figure out what makes them tick. There’s plenty of techniques to flesh out characters, but here’s four quick questions that might help you:

1) What do they want badly and are having trouble getting?

2) What’s a quirk or habit specific to them?

3) What’s one thing they want everyone to know?

4) What’s one thing they want nobody to ever know?

An Apology for Labels and Clubs *Or* Justification of Compartmentalization

300px-MagrittePipe
(Painting by René Magritte)
This rant of a blogpost was inspired by Full Metal RPG Episode 57 – “Heather, 5th Edition Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Requiem, Omega Zone Review.”
(You should check out FMRPG, they’re fucking rad)

I’ll start this philosophical bullshit with a strange question:

If we can play pretend for free and at any moment we choose, why bother paying a clerk in paper or electronic trust to deliver a packaged experience made by some far distant organization of people?

Plainspeak: Why bother buying RPG books when you can make it up yourself for free?

I see at least 4 great reasons: 1) people who write/create collaboratively for a living are more likely to create excellent content, 2) To have an agreed upon common language (aka rules/setting/character options), 3) to feel a sense of belonging to the group that uses this same common language, and 4) to commiserate with afterwards (between games) with people who speak the same common language.

We buy rule books because that’s the cost of entry into the gaming club. When players and game masters have rules to go by they have a social currency they can agree on, comprehend, and adhere to. It leads to an experience that can be repeated again and again, across the globe, regardless of personalities or circumstances.  It offers consistency, predictability, and comfort. It also offers a sense of belonging.

Twice in one week I was out in public with the common rabble of my fellow humans and I was called out for wearing symbols emblematic of my hobby interests. Someone spotted my d20 spinner ring and asked if I played D&D. Someone else spotted my “Lake Geneva Games” t-shirt and asked where I got it and if I knew any good places for people to run a game of D&D. The effect of both interactions was a surge of dopamine in my brain and a flash of smiling recognition. I immediately knew something about these people and they knew something about me. By no means was this a complete recognition, we might have argued over religion or politics or whether or not Dark Side of The Moon was the quintessential Pink Floyd album, but we had at least the common ground of Dungeons and Dragons and all that entails.

Without me wearing symbols of my interests and without companies creating rule books and people purchasing these products these moments would have never happened. I would know nothing of my connection to a wider world and human moments of empathy would have been lost.

A club can be used to fulfill the human need for belonging, or it can be used to bludgeon an “other” over the head because they don’t belong.

At their core, clubs and labels fulfill our brains innate desire to rationally comprehend the world around us. Flooded with sensory input from the external world as well as our own internal thoughts, in order to function we need to prioritize and compartmentalize information. If we refuse to do this or perhaps if our brains cannot do this for some physiological reason, we will quickly find ourselves unable to relate or cope with day to day modern human life.

Language itself is compartmentalized information. If we didn’t have language we could not express ourselves and meet our basic needs. I don’t see people scrambling to create a language revolution where we return to the good ol’ days of grunts and pointing. But people perennially love to discuss the oppression of labels and clubs. Personally, I think we’re having the wrong discussion. The oppression we should really be talking about is human cruelty. The insufferable insanity of crowds and mob mentality. The ever present evil of blindly following orders. The cults of personality and devotion that lead ordinary people to defend the honor and image of people they have never even met. Labels and clubs are not to blame for how people may misuse them.

I find it amusing that a podcast (FMRPG) that refers to its loyal audience as “cultists” recently discussed the sins of labels and clubs. This dramatic irony will not be lost on my friend Brendan of FMRPG. This isn’t me saying he’s a fool and a charlatan. I just like giving him shit. (I will admit, it’s easy for me to sit here and dissect and create points and counterpoints when I have the luxury of pausing and replaying the conversation on the podcast.)

The following is a brief transcription of the discussion in question (between timestamps 1:08:13 –  1:11:41)

Heather: “My biggest problem with vampire games is the way that they make you have to be in some kind of club…Why do vampires have to be in their own little clubs and fight each other?”

Brendan: “I think V5 acknowledges that…life doesn’t just get boiled down to what weird little group you’re in. I think that was a major failing of the original Masquerade material…it started out being this edgy different thing, ‘oh I get to choose a clan, and I’m part of a sect’ and these ideas of belonging that had never been expressed in roleplaying up till that point, felt very new and very fresh. But by the time you hit ’97 through ’99 people were starting to talk about ‘oh that character is the way they are because (and they would cite clan or cite sect).’ And then they started doing what I consider even more heinous things saying ‘this character can’t be because of clan or sect’ ‘Oh that characters not Brujah, Brujah would never be like that!’” (Alignment arguments anyone?)

Brendan: “This idea that you can break everything down into these finer and finer subgroups is actually destructive to creativity. It’s destructive to the way that games get played where everybody is always trying to analyze everything…what little nook can I slot you into?”

I agree with Heather and Brendan, but listening to the discussion I had my own thoughts I wanted to elucidate here. In my opinion it’s not clubs or labels that’s the real problem. What’s really to blame in these egregious situations is simply people being fucking shitheads.

I see where they’re coming from. I have been privy to conversations where people are diametrically opposed to what I believe or what I participate in. I have been “the other” in arguments that is bashed over the head with ideology and labels. I have bucked labels and tried to redefine myself. But in the end, all these years later, I realize how narrow my perspective was, and that I myself was conforming to just another set of rules and ideology. It’s like the person who says they want to rebel against society and its ideals of what is and isn’t acceptable and they purchase all their clothes from Hot Topic. It’s missing the point entirely.

The real point, as I see it, is that human beings can think stupidly and act outright disgusting to one another. When I was in high school I was abhorred that the “popular kids” started liking System of A Down. I didn’t want them joining my own edgy anti-establishment club of cool kids. Shouldn’t I have been happy that the band was succeeding in reaching a wider audience? Shouldn’t I have been using this common ground as an entryway for further understanding and empathy with my peers? Couldn’t I have just let it go and not be concerned with finding fault in others? Sure. But I wanted to throw a temper tantrum over what other people could and could not like based on my own prejudices.

“Oh you can’t play with us because you’re a (insert label here).” I’ve recently learned a little bit about this going on in the gaming community at large. I learned that we even have a label for this labeling. “Gatekeeping.” Keeping out people from a fandom or a hobby by direct or indirect means. This kind of behavior or language disgusts me. I want everyone to feel the rush of excitement I get when the final blow is struck with a critical hit against the Big Bad. I want everyone to feel welcome at my table and find a bit of solace from the too often confusing and chaotic real world. Not everyone needs to like what I like and everyone can find their own fun. Just don’t find your fun at the expense of others. Don’t be a wangrod to prove you’re right and others are wrong.

In summary: we need labels and rules and clubs to have a functioning society and in order for gaming to even happen in the first place. Just don’t be a fucking dick at/around/about the games we play. Fuck off with that shit.

The 12 Steps of Dungeon Mastery

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Step 1: We admitted our Players were beyond our control and completely unmanageable.

This is only 50% a joke. If you’ve Dungeon Mastered any group ever, you’ll see why this isn’t wholly a joke. It’s a lot like herding cats. While theoretically possible, more often than not it is practically impossible. You want them to go right? They’ll go left with an attitude. You plan for 6 rooms? They only get through 3. You want deep intrigue and role-play? They’ll spend three hours shopping and just being dicks to poor defenseless merchants. The less you try to control outcomes, the simpler your life will be. The more you merely react to their actions, the happier the table as a whole will be.

 

Step 2: We came to believe that a DM greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Inevitably, you will turn to the internet for answers. You will Tweet Chris Perkins, or read up on Sage Advice. You will listen to podcasts. You will watch Youtube videos. You will rant to Reddit, and you will talk to those you trust. “There has to be a better way,” you think, “If only I was better at this shit.” You start to see and hear experiences of happier, less frustrated DMs. Maybe there’s hope for you and your group after all.

 

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our stories and our craft over to the care of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it.

We know we have it in us. We know that this energy flows through the table when things are clicking. We’ve felt that electricity when we are brought to tears in character, when the whole table holds their breath on a single die roll. We have seen the greatness of gaming at our own table and the tables of others. We know that despite all our fears and failings, through all the drudgery of bad sessions, and all the times we ended disappointed, the love of the shared story keeps us going, keeps us prepping, keeps us dreaming up the next great campaign. This is the turning point. When we decide if we are Dungeon Masters or merely Players. When we decide to keep going, to listen better, to speak with confidence, to tell better stories, to be the best we can be.

Step 4: We made a fearless inventory of what we’re good at, and what we’re not.

Not everyone can act out NPC voices. Not everyone can craft unique and challenging puzzles. Not everyone can think strategically in combat. After all, there’s only one DM brain versus all those players. First try out a little of everything. Try character voices until it no longer feels goofy. Paint miniatures until their eyes aren’t googly. Read stat blocks till you find the hidden mechanics. Write descriptions till you don’t hate them. Then look back, take stock, and be honest with yourself. What’s your strongest tool? What’s your weakest link? Lean in to what you’re good at, and don’t try too hard with something you’re not proficient with.

Step 5: We admitted to ourselves and our players the exact nature of our wrongs.

If you made a bad call and you think you fucked up. Say it. Don’t hold it in. Your players will forgive you. And if they don’t, well, you need a new table because you were playing with assholes. We will make mistakes. That’s where we learn the most. I will personally never forget the one time I guessed the damage WAY wrong, and I let a single Ballista Bolt take out a Red Dragon. It was so painfully anticlimactic. I will never make that mistake again. And then there was the time I rolled initiative for 20 different Orc pirates on a ship and 10 different drunken Dwarven brawlers. Another time I did a round by round breakdown of a 2,000+ foot drop. You can’t know better ways to do things if you don’t do them horribly at least once. Cop to it. Learn. Move on.

Step 6: We became entirely ready for time and practice to remove our defects of DMing.

The only way to get better is to fail and do better next time. You will forget rules. You will wish you had not pulled punches in a combat encounter. You will fumble through endless notes looking for the details of an NPC you know are fucking somewhere. You gotta let that shit go. Do the best you can, and just like dice, roll with it.

Step 7: We humbly asked our players to help us improve our games.

When a session seems flat, or players seem disinterested, you have the power to ask for feedback. To poll your audience. Make adjustments based on their feedback and try to incorporate their ideas with your own. The more you do, the less work you will needlessly need. The more everyone will have more fun. A simple conversation may seem scary at times, but boy can it cut through the bullshit and wasted energy to just lay it all out on the table.

Step 8: We made lists of all the NPCs the PC’s had harmed and became willing to take revenge for them all.

Don’t just let things happen. Think of consequences for all their theft. Think of people who are jealous of all their gold coins. Think of people who want to spit in their faces for bringing death and destruction into their small town. We don’t play tabletop role-playing games so we can reload every dialog tree until we get the ending we wanted. We play tabletop role-playing games for that amazing sense of depth and consequence, the verisimilitude of a living breathing world. That feeling that “oh shit, once we do this, there’s no going back.” Don’t let those moments go unused. They can be glorious.

Step 9: We made direct revenge wherever possible, except when to do so would render the plot stupid and convoluted.

Not all bad guys know each other and work together in neat hierarchies of evil. Not everyone is part of the same massive crime syndicate that everyone knows but nobody can stop. Cut that shit out. There’s plenty of room at any table for diverse and varied villainy. Mix it up and bring them back only when it makes sense, if ever.

Step 10: We continued to take inventory, and when our rulings were petty we promptly admitted it.

Don’t make creatures auto-hit because you’re mad that the Paladin’s Aura of Protection gives everyone a +5 to all Saving Throws. Don’t punish your players because their characters are bad-ass or their hard work got them to where they are. Don’t take away Magic Items once you’ve given them. If things are going in unforeseen directions, follow that unknown path. In the words of Bear Grylls “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” If your PCs are strong you just need stronger monsters. Follow that murder-train until it’s the last stop. Just don’t take it personally when your Big Bad dies in one round. You’ve trained your Players to new heights of excellence. Be a proud Dungeon Master. Be a fan of their characters.

Step 11: We sought through prep-time and medias to improve our conscious craft of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it, praying that when the Players turned the plot we carried it out plausibly.

They will go often the beaten path. Follow them. React in ways consistent with the game world you have been creating together. Think of the game when not at the table. Research on Youtube, film, T.V., videogames, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Bring it back to the table and share the hidden gems you’ve found in your travels.

Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other DMs and practice these principles in all of our sessions.

I wish back in 1999 there were Youtube tutorials to watch. I wish I had an older brother who played D&D and taught me how the fuck THAC0 works. I wish there was Adventurer’s League in my hometown. I wish that Roll20 and digital tabletops allowed people to play across any distance on the globe. Today, in this new golden renaissance of tabletop gaming, there are more opportunities than ever. The internet, Twitch, PDF downloads, and increased societal acceptance have revolutionized the game. Go forth and play. And share your stories with each other.

Splinter: Fractured but not Broken

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Splinter is an RPG by End Transmission Games that I picked up a year ago at Gen Con 50 in 2017. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame because of the conceit of the game. You play a “Player” in a dystopian future Earth where all of human society revolves around watching “The Game.” Equal parts Pro-Sports/Game-Show/Reality T.V. The Game is live (and recorded) broadcasts of Players porting into an infinite virtual reality world called The Splinter, controlling native inhabitants as their Avatars, and engaging in exploring this massive fantasy world.

Splinter (the RPG) has a lot of really unique and interesting hooks for players and game masters to sink their teeth into. Unfortunately, sometimes in the core book there’s shards of poorly written and disorganized spastic thoughts that catch in your throat like broken glass. So here I am, compelled to share with you my thoughts about this great (and also terrible) rpg hidden gem.

It starts out great on the back cover: “YOU ARE THE PLAYER. Earth, 2471 AS. The only thing that matters is The Game. As a Player- a trained Professional or a conscripted Amateur- you Port into The Splinter with an audience of millions watching your every move. In a VR mega-dungeon of infinite size, you will struggle in conflicts dire, for your very life, and for the entertainment of the masses.”

And then: “YOU ARE THE AVATAR. The natives of The Splinter – taken by Players as their Avatars – don’t know it’s an ultra-violent spectator sport for Earth. To them, The Splinter is the True Realm: an ever-expanding, ever-changing, mega-dungeon labyrinth. The inhabitants of the Splinter are as strange as their environment: powerful shapeshifters gifted with the power to alter reality through will alone.”

And finally: “ON DYSTOPIAN EARTH, only the rich and famous can afford personal freedoms. And the only way to get famous is to put on the best show you can…or die trying. IN THE SPLINTER, everything’s out to kill you. Even your fellow Avatars. And when you die in the Splinter, you die on Earth. WILL YOU KILL YOUR WAY TO SUPERSTARDOM, OR WIND UP A SMEAR ON SOMEONE ELSE’S HIGHLIGHT REEL?”

fuck-ing-COOL. You got me. Shut up and take my money. This game is set in a weird world that feels like an insane mashup between Running Man, Death Race, The Matrix, Ready Player-One, Dark City, 1984, and Metalocalypse all rolled into one huge package. You have two characters, a Player and their Avatar. You get to roleplay in both sci-fi dystopia, and high magic fantasy. The two lives change and grow organically from one another. So for example a Player that develops their Earthside Strength will end up causing their Avatar to hit harder, and a popular Avatar that gets kills garnishes more Subscriber points for their Player which they can then spend on loot Earthside. And the two characters information can fit on a single 2 page character sheet (left side Player, right side Avatar). Like wtf!? This game is awesome!

Until you start to parse through the rules.

Page 1 rubbed me the wrong way:

CAVEAT If this is your very first RPG…put this book down, play another one first, and then come back. The weirdness will be waiting.”

Fuck you. Don’t tell me what to do rule-book. Tell me how to play your fucking awesome game and why I shouldn’t bother with other books. Don’t tell me I’m not smart enough for your game. Fuck you sir. BAD WRITING. TERRIBLE MARKETING. But it pissed me off enough to be determined to understand and master the “we’re too edgy for you” rules.

Then the first 18 pages are a short story. A vignette of what play could “look” like. Why? To show you how cool this game is but not tell you how to actually start playing.  Page 20 finally gives a solid setting to grasp. The Game is everything. If you don’t watch The Game you’re rebel scum. Cool. Great. HOW DO I FUCKING PLAY THIS FUCKING GAME?!

Page 24. Player Creation. Here we go again with shitty writing.

DON’T YOU MEAN CHARACTER CREATION? In most games you, the player, create a character. In this game, you, the person create a Player AND you create their Avatar, the “character” that they “play” inside the Splinter itself. Complicated? Yes. A bit of a mind screw? Definitely. But that’s the way we like it. Later on in this book, the word Player, when capitalized, in these rules refers to the character you play, who is, within the game, a Player. When we refer instead to you, we will do everything possible t make it clear; usually, we will just say “you”, not “the player”.

WHAT. THE. FUCK.

  1. Stop condescending your readers.
  2. Stop writing things 3 different ways explaining the same fucking thing.
  3. Nobody cares how fucking edgy you think you are.
  4. TELL ME HOW TO PLAY YOUR FUCKING GAME.

I will momentarily stop ranting about the poorly written arrogance of the author of this rule book and tell you now why I’m excited to run the game despite all the roadblocks of syntax and posturing.

Creating a Player you have 4 Attributes that factor into everything you could possibly do. You pick Skills based on a point buy system (deliberately open-ended so you can have a Bootlicking Skill if you really wanted it). As an Amateur you probably had illegal bacon that wasn’t approved by your corporate overlords. You get conscripted into The Game as punishment. You have no money. No possessions. You only matter if you can score some Subscribers (Twitch anyone?). If you live long enough and get enough Subscribers you can port back out of The Game in one piece. Maybe eventually make enough to even get a Mansion for 7 million Credits, a sweet ride for 60,000 Credits, and complete it  all with some Barbiturates and a High Class Escort for 5,000 credits a day. Live the rich life above the scum.

But then you have to eventually port back into the Splinter. Don’t wanna lose Subscribers because you got fat, sassy, and irrelevant. Playing an Avatar you have access to incredible Tuning powers that allow you to bend and warp reality. You can shapeshift between a Man form, a Hybrid form, and a Beast form. You play in Deathmatches against other Player’s Avatars, you try your luck in Escape matches where failing to find a working Exit Port by the time limit means instant death by poison. You rise up in Subscriber Points and can improve your Avatars stats by the experiences you gained staying alive.

But the Splinter is still a massive mystery to you and your corporate sponsors. And your corporate overlords keep pushing you into even more death defying shows. Maybe Guerilla Radio is right? Maybe it’s time to use your wealth and fame to overthrow Gamescorp. Self-destruct it from the inside. But how? The Wardens, their painless masked militia, will riot shock baton you to the ground in a puddle of piss before you even get to an Executives office. You’ll have to work hard to climb the ladder before you can set the whole thing ablaze. But when you finally have all that money and all that power will you really buck the system that made you?

This is why I’m prepping a fresh new Splinter campaign for next Thursday. This is why I trudged through the sometimes tedious and opaque rules of the core book. Because it is FUCKING KICKASS. If you can exercise patience and can forgive poorly formatted writing and layouts, Splinter is well worth the price of admission. I’ll make another post after our first session.

You can download Splinter here at DriveThruRPG https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/105066/Splinter

I care, therefore I game.

I look at the news about once a week. I try to avoid it because lately its been depressing and it’s personally far too easy for me to slip into a negative thought spiral and end up feeling hopeless about the country I’ve lately been ashamed to live in. Senseless violence, ineffectual political leadership, and tragic societal decay. Shit is fucked up here in the un-United States.

The best way for me to face these inescapable truths has been for me to focus not on people or situations I’m too far removed from to directly affect, and instead focus on living the best life I can and being the best compassionate and helpful human I can strive to be. Voting, making charitable donations to causes, and treating everyone I meet with respect and seeking my best to understand rather than to be understood.

For me, gaming is an essential part of living the best life and seeking to understand others.

Human beings are the only creatures (that I’m aware of) that play games with their minds according to complex rules. Cops and Robbers. Football. Chess. Dungeons & Dragons. We don’t play games for survival. If we did, we wouldn’t create obstacles in the forms of rules to make it harder to “survive.”

In 1978 Bernard Suits wrote a book called The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia where he defines the playing of a game as

“the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles”.

A game is interactive, goal oriented, and involves other agents who can interfere with and/or influence each other. According to this definition, real life itself is a game. You’re the Player Character and everyone else is an Non Playable Character. But you’re also a Non Player Character to everyone else’s Player Character. A Massive Multiplayer Offline Role Playing Game.

The problem with this game of life is that choices we make and the actions we choose to take do not offer immediate feedback or seemingly none at all. Was it a good idea for me to transfer to a different high-school than the one in my hometown? I wasn’t sure until years later when I could look back and be contented by the life lessons I learned while I was there.

In life the rules are infinitely complex, the goals are unclear, and the methods for achieving these goals are often unknown or unique for every person. So in light of the dizzying possibilities, inconsistencies, and contradictions of life it’s obvious why humans invented games.

Games offer us a chance to understand and master clear rules, move towards achievable and concrete goals, using methods that give us immediate feedback of their efficacy. When I catch the Robber, when I score a goal, when my queen takes another pawn, when my warlock does 16 force damage, I know what consequences my actions had and I know where to go from there.

About a month ago my coworker asked me a seemingly simple question “Why do all these games have to be so violent?” I immediately had flashbacks to justifying Mature rated video games to my mother. Of politicians blaming videogames for violence in schools. Of kids getting into fist fights over holographic Pokemon Cards. The short answer: we cannot escape violence or darkness or fear. Human beings are part of this planet and this planet and its plants and animals function first and foremost on a simple principle. Life needs to kill to live. A tree climbing closer towards the sun, thereby stunting the growth of a smaller plant that now cannot soak up as much of the life giving rays. An herbivore masticating the leaves of that tree. A carnivore hunting and killing that herbivore. A human killing and eating those leaves and/or that carnivore and/or that herbivore. Tribes seeking dominance over other tribes. Towns competing for the best market goods. Cities conquering other cities. Nations waging war on one another for land and resources. Violence is an inescapable part of life. Conflict is unavoidable. Life destroys life to live.

Whether we wage actual war on each other, or we play simulated wars through sports or miniatures, violence is part of being alive, of being human. What or who we wage war on and how or why we do is what defines us, unites us and also divides us.

Personally, I believe there is such a huge new renaissance in tabletop role-playing games because there is such a confusing real world out there. Is that person a terrorist? Where will the next school shooting be? Will justice prevail against sexual predators? Can we find a way towards a kinder, gentler world? Maybe. I hope so. The future is still unwritten.

That’s why it’s so comforting to play a game where I know what the stakes are, I know where the Lich’s lair is, I know how to destroy his phylactery. I can find empathy in playing a half-elf who’s never really felt at home among humans or elves. I can choose to spare the goblin children lest I become the monsters I hunt. I can take down evil tyrants who stand as proxies for the tyrants I wish I could take down in the real world. I can feel the satisfaction of saving a village from a Red Dragon.

Tabletop role-playing games offer us the chance to be heroes, to be something we love and we wish we could be. They offer us the chance to play villains, to be something we hate and we wish weren’t real. They offer us a safe arena to get out all the frustrations of our primal mind that tell us to strangle our coworkers even though our cognitive mind tells us we simply cannot do that. They offer us the chance to feel confident and powerful in a world that is consistent and understandable.

And these experiences aren’t merely imaginary, locked in our minds and fruitless. These experiences lead to very real friendships, practice with creative problem solving, and a feeling of agency that inevitably overflows into our day to day interactions. After I finish a really good D&D Session, I feel energized and enthusiastic, ready to take on the real dragons that loom on the horizon of my real life.

So next time someone tries to say to you “Why do you waste your time on that? It’s just a game. Why don’t you get a life?” Tell them “Why don’t you try a different game? You’re not very good at this one.” Walk away and just blame this blog post.

Satanic Panics (The Tragedy of Black Leaf)

The Tragedy of Black Leaf

from Dark Dungeons ©1984 by Jack T. Chick LLC

(Because everyone knows when you die in the Matrix you die in real life.)

The following is an opinion piece with snippets of research.

If you don’t like what I have to say, well then I have no idea how the fuck you got here in the first place, but Cheers!. Carry on.

 

The selective memory of individuals with an ax to grind never ceases to amaze me. I have read a comic, a forum post, and heard stories and watched media portraying D&D (and by association other fantasy role-playing games) as agents of a real and dangerous spiritual force of destruction. Homicides and suicides have had certain people blaming role-playing games as the reason for violence or self-harm. Often Christianity and the Bible are stressed as antidotes to this spiritual threat. Which I personally find laughable.

Christianity, where various statues are prominently displayed depicting an emaciated man who was violently murdered by his peers by being attached to two wooden boards by nails through his flesh. The Bible, where whole cities of people are turned into pillars of salt and shrubberies on fire direct the path of an entire populace. Christianity, where people are mandated to eat the flesh and blood of a demigod whose spiritual essence has transferred into mundane bread and wine through the mystery of transubstantiation (if you’re Catholic). The Bible, where one of the most extolled preachers  (Paul) wrote in his official letter to the faithful in Galatians 5:12 the ancient equivalent of the classic response to “You’re gay” (“NO YOU”) when he said “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (aka cut their own dicks off, because they’re losers and posers.) And then only a few sentences later he says to treat your neighbor as yourself. (So I should circumcise myself? oh ok cool.)

What the fuck am I getting at? Am I saying religion is dumb? No. What I’m getting at is sometimes people are dumb. Religion is merely a tool that can be used either to build a solid foundation that stands through a tempest of life, or used to nail heretics to trees.

The Bible, Christianity, other sacred texts, and other world religions, all share something in common. Elements of the fantastical. Characters that are larger than life. Beings from beyond our normal waking world. Magic and Mystery. What’s the difference between the Jesus Fandom and The Tolkien Fandom? Mostly PR and the skin color of their protagonists. Jesus was from the Middle East (sorry folks) and Gandalf was from Middle Earth (anglo-saxon fantasyland). So in my opinion fundamentalists are just being the “Um…actually…” people that we all hate at the table. They’re rules lawyers. Nobody likes rules lawyers. They stop the flow of the game and everybody gets silently annoyed with them. Fundamentalists are people who are essentially saying “Your fun is wrong.” It’s dumb. It’s hurtful and ultimately it only drives sales, which is perhaps the funniest thing about it.

When D&D was faced with the Satanic Panic controversies sales skyrocketed as the forbidden fruit syndrome took affect and everyone wanted to check out this edgy new dangerous game.

When Pokemon came out I remember a story in the media that a preacher had ripped off the head of a Pickachu doll in front of a group of young children telling them to beware of the devil. Sales soared. Pokemon-Go did just fine these past two years.

When Harry Potter came out I remember stories that preachers were burning the books (guess what dummies you still had to fucking buy them so…). Man, that amusement park never would have got built without the help of angry fundamentalists. Oh and to make matters worse their evil charismatic cult leader J.K. Rowling is now a billionaire that lost her billionaire status by donating to charities. Likely to create a smokescreen against her homosexual wizard stories. Such a witch.

 

When I was in film school I learned about a very interesting concept about sociology and media that I still think about today. It’s called the “Magic Bullet or Hypodermic Needle model.” It basically says that a message is directly received and wholly accepted by an individual. For example people committing crimes in the video game Grand Theft Auto will directly affect those people so as to make them predisposed to commit similar crimes. Originally conceived of in the 1930’s it has mostly been debunked but for some reason it made a resurgence in the 90’s and now (apparently) again in 2018. The Wiki on The Magic Bullet model mentions contemporary “One-Step Flow” of media information:

More recently, the use of big data analytics to identify user preferences and to send tailor-made messages to individuals led back to the idea of a “one-step flow of communication”, which is in principle similar to the hypodermic needle model.[15] The difference is that today’s massive databases allow for the mass customization of messages. So it is not one generic mass media message, but many individualized messages, coordinated by a massive algorithm.

Ok, that sounds fancy and correct, but what happens if we just don’t care? What happens if the algorithm fails? For example, I don’t drink. At all. Yet every fucking weekend Instagram tries to dish out alcohol ads at me and I just keep removing them and selecting “It’s not relevant.” Honestly I wish I could just have the option to not receive alcohol ads by selecting an option that says “I DON’T FUCKING DRINK ASSHOLES.”

Hollywood keeps cranking out “low-risk” movies. Movies with franchises or star power or whatever because its a safe bet for their finances. They want to make money so nobody is funding “risky” narratives. A lot of those movies I will never see. Or if I do seem them I won’t be able to stop making fun of how stupid the characters and the story is. Don’t even get me started about “Fifty Shades of Shitty Representation of Kinks.”

“So what was the point? Final summation? None.”

The Burning Wheel

I first noticed The Burning Wheel about a year and a half ago at my Friendly Local Game Store. It was a gorgeous red and gold book sitting on a shelf begging to be read. I walked by it more than once because I thought “D&D 5e is all I need, why read another game system when I barely have a steady group for D&D 5e?”

Flash forward to now: I have a steady game group of amazing players and I’ve been making an active effort to expand my perspectives and experiences.

Enter my voracious Youtube watching. Interior, Day. We see a man with flamboyant hair and a punk rock attitude. This man is Adam Koebel, creator of Dungeon World. Lover of gaming. Writer, Streamer, Designer, Producer, and entertaining as hell to listen to.

Adam can’t stop ranting about this game called The Burning Wheel.

Shit, I passed by that book a hundred times. Guess I better check it out, huh?

Holy shit. This game is ridiculous.

Burning Wheel is a game where, according to their official website,

You write your own Beliefs about what you want and Instincts that describe how you react. You advance your skills to help you get there and you earn traits that describe how you come out on the other side. One way or another, when you play Burning Wheel, you’re playing with fire.

Playing with fire indeed. No character classes. No abstract “Hit Points”. No predictable turn based combat. No part of it that does not mechanically and elegantly fold back in on itself. No character without some deeper motivation. This game is a well oiled machine of drama and high stakes play. This game is what Skyrim wishes it could be. This game is Burning Wheel.

Taken from the back of The Gold Edition core-book:

Burning Wheel is an award-winning fantasy roleplaying game in which players take on the roles of vibrant, dynamic characters whose very beliefs propel the story forward.

Sounds good, right? Does it deliver though? FUCK YES IT DOES.

During character creation you are tasked with choosing Lifepaths to determine how your character has lived SINCE BIRTH. You choose a Birth Life Path and then a certain number of Lifepaths based on how seasoned you want your character to be. There are no levels or classes in the game but the number of Lifepaths you take is a good indicator of how competent or powerful your character will be. 2 Lifepaths? You’re basically a powerless young adult. 3 Lifepaths? A mildly skilled adult. 5 Lifepaths and you’re a well seasoned veteran of some walk of life.

Your skills and your statistics are directly related to the Lifepaths you choose and your age. Certain skills and abilities are only available to certain Lifepaths, so right from the get-go your choices affect how you can play your character.

And the Advancement System? Whoa buddy. Your skills only increase if you use them. You don’t get better at swinging a sword if you never swing your sword. You don’t wondrously gain a feature out of thin air just because you gain something called a “level”. This is medieval fantasy life bruh. You gotta lift to get them gains. And you can die from all manor of nasty cuts and bruises.

Speaking of wounds: The Physical Tolerances Greyscale (or PTGS for nerds in the know).

Based on your stats you have different tolerances for Superficial, Light, Midi, Severe, Traumatic, and Mortal Wounds. Any one of these wounds could give you a nasty penalty to ALL your skills. In Burning Wheel there is no such thing as “oh yeah i just got hit by three arrows and a lightning bolt but I’m still running around 30ft every 6 seconds in full plate armor and smiling.”

All this hardcore shit is awesome but what about those sweet, sweet BITs? Beliefs, Instincts, and Traits. These things that are in most roleplaying games but are forgotten about after character creation. In BW, if you play according to your BITs  and you get mechanically rewarded. Did you move one step closer to “Running the best damn Oddities shop?” Cool, you just gained Artha. What the fuck is Artha? A free re-roll, a chance to do more damage, or that last little push you needed to convince the doubtful prince to invest in your growing business. You have BITs that when you play to them you gain Artha. You use Artha in Tests to succeed and move closer to what you want. As you move closer to what you want you get better at the abilities you use. You learn to take greater risks towards your goals as you gain Artha and spend it and get better and so on and so on.

The game really is a Burning Wheel. Like Adam Koebel says of it, “It’s the Swiss watch of roleplaying games.” Gods dammit it is complicated as shit. But when you get all the parts moving and turning, it is a beauty to behold the intricate and complex stories that it can create around a table.

Don’t pass by the Gold Edition sitting on a shelf. You’ll regret not learning it sooner.

takemymoney