Category Archives: Gaming

Discussions/thoughts about RPGs, video games, board games, and so on.

A Duty, Not a Calling

This is going to be one of my relatively rare gaming posts, but I think it also has some pertinence in fiction, so buckle up your Chain Mail +3 Vs Geekery and here we go:

I wanna complain for a while about Clerics in D&D.

Clerics suck.

Okay, okay – that was perhaps too harsh, allow me to rephrase: Clerics’ role in D&D parties is a terrible one and I hate them for it. I’m all for playing devoted followers of this or that god (you won’t hear me complaining about paladins, for instance) and I think a divine-oriented campaign or party or adventure is pretty cool. What I don’t like is all the healing magic.

One of my central tenets of GMing is that players have the most fun when they are the closest to destruction. The corollary to this rule is that players work the absolute hardest they can to avoid being close to destruction. This central paradox constitutes the GM’s primary obstacle to creating a fulfilling and sensational adventure. You want to press them, make them desperate, force them to come up with the most outlandish and riskiest possible solution to their problems while, at the same time, they are working feverishly to prevent that from ever happening.

It would be this, every time, all the time.

If the players of the world had their way, every dungeon crawl would be a methodical slog in which everyone left with approximately the same hit points they had when they went in. They would win every combat by a country mile. They would save the day with effortless flair and exact revenge on their enemies exactly 24 hours after being wronged. And then gaming would be (and sometimes is) terribly, terribly boring.

The cleric aids and abets this goal of the players. Work really hard to get them desperate and clawing for supplies? The cleric’s gods waves away their exhaustion and heals their injuries. Blind a guy? The cleric’s gods give him back his sight. Kill a PC in an earth-shattering climax? The players are only a brief prayer session away from getting the dead guy right back.

Players love clerics. They love them to the point where, when a D&D party is forming and everybody is making their characters, there’s always somebody who looks around the table and asks “so…which one of us is gonna be the healer?”

Now, whenever this is said, I always (always) say “you don’t need a healer to be an effective team” or “sometimes it’s more fun to not have a healer.”

They never, ever believe me. Not once in 25 years of GMing.

And the real tragedy of it all is that, frequently, nobody really wants to be a healer. They’d much rather be a wizard or a rogue or a paladin or something. They had this cool idea for a halfling barbarian and then they looked around a realized they wouldn’t have anybody throwing healing spells and shrugged and said “well, all right – I guess I’ll be some guy with a bald head and a mace.” This is so, so sad. You’ve got this group of players who “take one for the team” so they can play a character class that actively reduces the chances of things ever getting interesting. 

And then, just when things were getting interesting…

Now, I should point out that there are exceptions to this. There are players who cook up interesting cleric characters and play them in an interesting way (I just ran a campaign with a viking-esque tempest cleric who was pretty cool, it must be said), but these I’ve found to be in the minority. Instead of playing their hearts (and thereby being really, really invested), they play cautiously, making sure to heal up everybody before they get into a scrap, making sure they’re there to prevent anything dire from really happening.

As long as the cleric has spell slots, you are working with a net. As long as you are working with a net, things don’t get “real” (as the kids say). If all the damage you have sustained can be waved away, why were you scared of being gored by that minotaur in the first place? When you play a game like D&D strategically, you can very easily kill the drama. At minimum, you make it way, waaay more difficult for the DM to present you with challenges that test your ingenuity. And challenges that test your ingenuity are the things that you wind up telling stories about later – the sessions you remember forever and which you identify with the most excitement.

There is an analog here in writing, too. Beyond simply healing magic, you need to be cognizant of consequences in your fiction. You need to make sure that the danger is real and that your protagonists don’t deal with it too easily. You need to yank their safety nets away so the audience is hanging on the edge of their seats. So, if you do have world with magical healing, you need to make sure it is associated with the proper sets of complications and consequences that make things interesting. In my Saga of the Redeemed, for instance, I have Tyvian saddled with the Iron Ring, which has very, very potent powers of rejuvenation and endurance associated with it, but that power comes with strings attached (Tyvian’s behavior) and has a variety of costs. Even when he does heal people with it, it creates problems more than it solves them.

Now, such dramatic flourishes are difficult to accomplish in an RPG, but one thing is pretty easy: next time somebody asks who is going to be a healer, volunteer.

Then don’t.

Make yourself a Trickster Cleric with NO healing magic.
Make a rogue who practices quack medicine.

Make a druid who specializes in health food (more goodberries, anybody?).

Go into battle without a cleric, and trust the GM and your fellow players to come up with some seriously memorable adventures that won’t be easy, but will be a hell of a lot of fun.

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Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.

Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.

The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.

Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.

I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for  a day.

The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.

Good luck!

Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – Roles

So, I’ve been posting a bit less than usual these past few months. This is thanks largely to some steep writing deadlines I’m struggling to meet, limiting me to about 1 post a week or so. My apologies for whatever regular readers I have, but it’s for a good cause, trust me. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace again soon. In the meantime, I recently watched the pilot episode of the new Lethal Weapon television show, and I’ve been bitten by the bug to run another session of Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – a home-brewed hack of the Danger Patrol game. I’ve included more of the play materials here below. First, though, you might want to read the Game Introduction and you might be interested in a recap of our first session.

Let’s talk your role on this miserable squad. The roles are as follows:

The Rookie

“Tell me again Harry, why did I take this job?”

“Tell me again Harry, why did I take this job?”

You’re a fresh-faced kid straight out of the academy, all adorable and eager. It would be cute if you weren’t so goddamned talented. You spend most of your time embarrassing us older guys and we hate your guts. It’s not personal…well, maybe it is personal, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re in your prime, kid, and that counts for something. Just don’t attempt to grow a brain, okay? Stick with the older heads and you’ll go far.

Suggested d12 Trait: Athletics

 

The Veteran

“I am getting too old for this shit.”

“I am getting too old for this shit.”

I don’t know who you pissed off, but somebody upstairs doesn’t like you very much. When you were in the academy, dinosaurs walked the earth. You are literally older than dirt and pretty close to retirement, yet here you are, in a room full of heroes and lunatics. I pity you, I really, truly do.

All that said, the rest of these kids are the lucky ones. You’ve served in every division in the department, from traffic to narcotics to the gang unit. You know everybody, you got tricks they don’t teach anymore, and then there’s the fact that you draw a big enough salary to own a house or maybe even a boat. That is, of course, if you live to enjoy it…

Suggested d12 trait: Knowledge or Driving

 

negotiator

“I once talked a guy out of blowing up the Sears Tower but I can’t talk my wife out of the bedroom or my kid off the phone.”

The Negotiator

You are the guy we call when we need something resolved without bloodshed. Sometimes it even works. Succeed or fail, though, you know how to negotiate with scumbags, you know when people are lying, and you can get a confession out of anybody (assuming they’re still alive).

Your job with this crowd is going to be keeping these animals from eating every two-bit crook from here to Cincinnati alive. You need to get prisoners, talk to them, and learn their secrets. Good luck on this one, buddy. Try not to get dead.

Suggested d12 Trait: Interaction

 

tech

“Six booby traps, four dead ends, and a partridge in a pear tree. Okay, honey. Let’s dance.”

The Tech

I guess you’re some kind a braniac. If it were up to me, we’d still be using pencil and paper and walking the beat on our own two feet, but you’re a cop for the new millennium, I guess. You know computers, gadgets, and bombs like the rest of us know the contents of our underwear drawer. Christ, you’ve forgotten more about gizmos and high-tech widgets than the rest of us will ever learn. We need you, as annoying as you are. The only thing I ask is that, when you start to explain something, use plain fucking English, okay?

Suggested d12 Trait: Tech or Driving

 

“When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could have made that shot. It's the only thing I was ever good at.”

“When I was 19, I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out. It was a rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or even ten guys in the world could have made that shot. It’s the only thing I was ever good at.”

The Weapon Specialist

I’m gonna level with you: assholes like you are my worst fucking nightmare. For some reason, you seem to think your job isn’t filling the jails with scumbags. Instead, you fill the fucking morgue with bodybags. I got no idea what they taught you in Nam or Iraq or SWAT or whatever hell-hole vomited you into my office, but I swear if you keep putting bullet holes in my city, I will be personally shitting on your head every fucking day. Could you leave the goddamned machine guns at home for once? You know what, forget it—why do I bother? You just better hope what goes around doesn’t come around, because Karma for a violent asshole like you is bound to be a bitch.

Suggested d12 Trait: Shooting

 

“No, ma’am, we at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”

“No, ma’am, we at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”

The Liaison

Oh, great—we’ve got help. Look, I don’t care if you’re from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DEA, the WWF, or whatever the fuck. I don’t care if you flew in from Hong Kong or if the guy you’ve been tracking all the way from Moscow owns a B&B in my own neighborhood—we here in Danger Patrol don’t need help. You know what I hate the most about you lousy Feds? I never really know what you’re up to. You’ve got secrets and special training and all kinds of covert directives and I don’t have the fucking time to keep my eyes on you. So, you want in? Fine—your funeral. I got news for you, Miss Quantico: this town will eat you alive. Stick close to my guys and don’t fuck things up, and you may just live long enough for us to trust you.

Suggested d12: Knowledge and Stealth (you get two)

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

The Beat Cop

You are from the school of hard knocks, so you have that going for you. Police work is a personal thing—you understand community policing (drinking at the local bars) and local outreach (gambling at the local bars). You understand that you can’t be a good cop behind a desk or a microscope. You’re also a stubborn, filthy, stupid moron who thinks your shit don’t stink. I’m here to tell you, flatfoot, that it stinks to high fucking heaven. This ain’t 1932, got it? Today’s criminals will run circles around you unless you learn how to use a fucking smartphone. Knowing the name of all the local bouncers only gets you so far. Still, street smarts and the basic skills you’ve got in spades are still essential to our business. There ain’t no app that makes perps cuff themselves.

Suggested d12 Trait: Fighting

 

“I don't think cost is the issue here, sir. I think the issue should be my blatant disregard for proper procedure.”

“I don’t think cost is the issue here, sir. I think the issue should be my blatant disregard for proper procedure.”

The Investigator

You’re smart, I’ll give you that. You’re the guy who puts the clues together, figures out who did what to who and with what. You probably fancy yourself a pretty good judge of the human soul, too, huh? Well, fine, but don’t let it go to your head. Fact is I’ve buried more of you idiots than I care to mention, and you wanna know why? You tend to stick your nose where it don’t belong and never call for fucking backup. I had a dog like you once—used to chase every goddamned rabbit he saw. I put up a fence, tied him with a chain, bought one of them fancy electric gizmos, and the poor stupid mutt still wound up flattened by a car. You wanna know why? Because he didn’t know when to quit! Maybe that’s admirable—I dunno. Anyway, just keep your partner close and maybe, just once in a while, come up with a theory that will stick in court.

Suggested d12 Trait: Knowledge

Character Creation in a Danger Patrol-type game is super, super simple. You pick a role (above) and then select a style (below) – bingo, you’ve got a character.

Styles

  • Stoic
  • Wise-ass
  • Exotic
  • Psycho
  • Smooth
  • Cocky
  • Straight-laced
  • Crooked

So, there you have it – my own home-brew action-cop game. Can’t wait to run it again; can’t wait to let you folks know how it goes.

That’s it for me at the moment – back to writing!

That Edge Between Doom and Boredom

This is a gaming post; I know, it’s been awhile. Recently I’ve been running a D&D 5th Edition campaign (set in the Greyhawk world – my personal favorite) and, while it has been going relatively smoothly, I’ve run into a minor problem: the PCs are just too dang good at things. The lot of them are floating around 7th level at this point and every time I try to send them a challenging encounter, I have two options:

  1. The Encounter can end in 35 minutes or less, or will be way too easy (snore).
  2. The Encounter will be challenging and threaten them, but will involve tons of creatures and take more than an hour (snore).

Sometimes I don’t even get that.

Now, this isn’t a post bemoaning game balance, but it is a post about game systems and campaign theory. A lot of players like having encounters that don’t seriously threaten their character’s survival. You waltz through the dungeon, take a few hit points damage here and there (quickly replaced by the healer), go outside, take a nap, and BAM – back to 100%. If that’s the game you want to play, then fine. Personally, I think that kind of play is dreadfully boring for everybody. Without risk, there is no drama.

So, what do you do, as the GM, to create a sense of peril? When I have a Fire Giant loom on the horizon, I want my players to be actively concerned. I want them to feel like they could very well be pounded flat. Thing is, by 7th Level, a party of 4-5 PCs don’t have to feel that way about a 20-foot giant anymore, and I consider that an issue. The answer seems to be “more giants,” but soon the plausibility of the encounter begins to create problems. The image of five giants swinging giant swords at targets that stand about knee-high seems…stupid. For that reason, my current experience of 5th Ed D&D (while fun) has been mixed.

Of course, you can go the other way entirely. Consider the game Riddle of Steel. It boasts of the “most realistic combat system in all of RPGs” and, honestly, I have to think they’re right. The problem, though, is because it is so realistic, people die all the goddamned time. Like, seriously – one goon whacks you in the temple with a two-by-four and your character is down for the count and likely permanently disabled. While this certainly ups a sense of risk (one guy pulls a knife and shit gets real really fast), it also forces players (who are inherently conservative folks, anyway) to start acting like real people. Everybody becomes more polite, they don’t do stupid things like “storm the castle,” and, hell, if I gave them the option, about half of them would settle down with a good woman in a town somewhere and sell dry goods. Adventure wouldn’t happen.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

Heart-in-throat moments are what good RPGs are built on. Good stories, too.

There is that sweet spot, though – right in-between “too easy” and “too deadly” – that spot where really, really cool stuff happens. Old school Shadowrun was like this: get shot, and you felt it, but otherwise you were awesome and it was really hard for mooks to shoot you (though, it should be noted that recent editions of the game have really made it safer to run the shadows, even with bullet wounds). Of course, this isn’t just dependent on game system – I firmly believe you can make a game ride this edge with enough forethought and planning, though it is harder in some games than others. In every game I run, that’s the goal: keep things dangerous enough that the players feel the risk, but keep them safe enough that everybody doesn’t die of dysentery or are knifed in an alley by a pickpocket and bleed out. Of course there are variations, too – some games, depending upon concept, are more or less fatal and that’s fine – but the edge between the two is the golden sweet spot, for me.

I can expand this idea, by the way, to include fiction, too. Good adventure stories need to find this zone, as well. Stories where everybody is worthless and dies are usually just dismal whereas stories where the proverbial “Mary Sues/Stus” just gaily tramp to victory with no cost to themselves or others are pretty dull. If you want players or readers on the edge of their seats, you need to work them up to it. It takes some doing, but I’ve found both in writing and gaming that anytime this is done well it makes for a memorable experience.

It ain’t easy, though.

The Halls of Ignominious PC Death

Oooo! Spooky!

Oooo! Spooky!

Last night I finished up my involvement in a D&D campaign run by my friend, Fish. It ended poorly for my wizard, the elderly Baltigast – he took a pair of bad draws from a Deck of Many Things as a last ditch effort to recover his lost power and prestige, and instead wound up a toothless old madman without a penny to his name. Ah well.

Tomorrow, I start running my own D&D campaign (which was the reason I left Fish’s game – I like running better than playing, and I can’t wait anymore). So, today, in memory of those PCs who came to bad ends and in anticipation of those PCs who are going to, let me tell you some stories about the miserable ends some of my players have fallen victim to over my 23 year history of running RPGs.

In no particular order:

Barooza, 3rd Level Half-Orc Berzerker, Amedio Jungle, Oerth

Barooza foolishly drank an Elixir of Madness, making him…unreasonable. An unreasonable berserker in a dungeon crawl is a dangerous prospect, and so the other players tied him up. Now, however, they had a thrashing, 250lbs half-orc to carry around, and nobody felt up to it. “Hey,” said the pirate, “I’ve got this Bag of Holding! We can just stuff him inside and carry him around!”

Yeah, that Bag of Holding? Actually a Bag of Devouring. They stuffed poor Barooza in head-first, and he only had time to scream once before he was consumed by an extra-dimensional predator. Bummer of a way to go.

Wheeler, 5th Level Mage, Crystalmist Mountains, Oerth

The party was in a large, hollow tower. They could scale the walls up to the top, but the walls were crawling with nasty critters that would try to eat them. The alternative? Well, Wheeler wanted to levitate straight up the middle of the tower and, once he reached the walkway at the top, he could let down several coils of rope for the rest of the PCs to scale. The trouble, of course, was they hadn’t really done the math on how far Wheeler could levitate for the duration of the spell and whether that would be sufficient time to reach the walkway. It was not – he came in ten feet shy. He then fell a couple hundred feet to his death. At least the prophet at the top was good enough to resurrect him.

Mac, Sergeant, Xplore Corporation, Abandoned Eridani War Cruiser, Fornax Galaxy

The party was being shot at from the floor below by war bots that were pumping plasma up through the deck plating, leaving molten holes in the steel floor. Mac attempted to drop a grenade through one such hole, but instead of dropping it through, he decided this was the time to play a game of hoops. He shot from half-court, the grenade took a very bad bounce, and landed at his feet. Boom. His internal organs were pulped, and so ended Mac.

Nameless XF Inc Mercenary, US Naval Base, Lone Wolf Planetoid, Wolf-359

So, after attacking an armored US Marine with a kitchen knife (and barely surviving), he and his compatriot were cut off in the detention wing of the facility, with their only possible escape route being a cargo elevator. Into the cramped elevator they crammed and slowly began to ascend to the laundry room, however, the marines had reached the elevator and were guiding it back down. The elevator was a cage, and there was just enough room to stick a pistol out to maybe shoot out the counter weights to release the elevator. The other guy took the shot. After much random ricocheting, the bullet hit the mercenary between the eyes.

Major Russ Carmady, Olympus, Groomsbridge 1619

Major Russ was a big fan of planning out his defenses, so when they landed to secure a drop zone on a strange alien planet, he ordered the whole area littered with antipersonnel mines – just in case, you know? Cut to a few days later, when they are being bombarded from orbit by a Chinese battlecruiser and actual extraterrestrials are about to storm their base, and what does Russ elect to do? Well, he obviously can’t be captured, so he makes a run for it. This was my question:

So, do you remember where you placed your own mines?

No. No he did not. Kablooey.

Got any other ridiculous tales of PCs’ untimely demises? Share them here!


Publicity News

Say, did you miss my last book signing? Feel guilty? Well, have I got some good news for you! I will be doing another book signing at the Prudential Center Barnes and Nobel in Boston this coming Saturday, 5/30, from 2pm to 4pm. I will be signing copies of the Writers of the Future Anthology, Volume 31, so come on down!

No, seriously, come on down. I don’t want to be lonely. I want the nice people at Barnes and Nobel to appreciate my business. I’ll have cookies and stuff. Just show up and let me scribble on your book!

More Than Pointy Ears

I’ve been playing and reading a lot of Dungeons and Dragons related stuff recently. It’s been years since I swore off D&D (the mid 90s, I believe) and I am becoming reacquainted with the things I like and the things I do not like. This post is about one of the things that I don’t like: D&D Elves.

I always had a problem with Elves back in the old days. I remember thinking they were seriously lame and that geeks’ obsessions with them were weird and annoying. As the years passed, this feeling dimmed, and I became a fan of elves as I encountered them in the Warhammer universe, in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, and other places as well. I eventually came to think that my dislike of elves was simply adolescent rebellion (of a strange sort) against what was “cool” (and yes, I’m painfully aware how ridiculous it is to discuss that which is “cool” or “not cool” in D&D).

Now that I’m back in the D&D world, I can confidently tell you that grown-up me was wrong and adolescent me was right: D&D Elves do, in fact, suck. What I was wrong about, however, were the reasons why this is.

Just Another Pointy-Eared Dude

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

Yo, bra, after we slay the what-not, wanna kick back and drink a few brews?

The problem with D&D Elves is that, for all the window-dressing of a long-lived, wise race living aloof in their silver palaces or mystical forests, in practice they are nothing like that. Elves are just humans with better hair. They are, for lack of a better term, “cool humans.” People who play elves tend to do so just for their abilities; it is really rare that I have seen anybody bothering playing an elf like an elf. Dwarves, Halflings, Gnomes, Half-orcs, and so on all have distinct and interesting role-playing elements that most people use to make their characters interesting. Elves? Nope. An elf talks like a human, acts like a human, has human feelings, and is essentially identical to humans except according to the rules, wherein they get a couple special buffs that humans don’t.

Part of this is the fault of the game itself. D&D is so very obsessed with game-balance, that they try to keep everything even-steven between the playable races and, furthermore, they promote a world wherein elves and dwarves and gnomes and such live side-by-side in general harmony and equality, all of which essentially homogenizes the races into different flavors of human being. Really, all an elf is is a set of different characteristics for the purpose of gameplay. Any role-playing aspect of elves is often too abstract or too serious to be actively interesting to your average Mountain Dew-chugging basement dweller. You don’t play an elf to be an arrogant prick, you play an elf because you want skills like Legolas but also want to be about the same size as a regular person so that the majority of enchanted chain mail shirts you find will fit.

The Children of Silver Starlight

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

More like *this* than just some guy with a bow and pointy ears.

That, however, is not how I see elves at all. I see elves as among the most alien of the demihuman races, not the least. These are beings who do not know sickness, old age, or fatigue and who live for centuries on the edge of our reality. Their every movement is graceful, their voices are pure , and their arts are ancient and beautiful. They are a species who once ruled the world in justice and peace until they, through their arrogance, failed and suffered. That suffering is still new to them, though it be ancient history to humanity. Elves are supposed to represent the best of everything, but tempered with arrogance and grief that no human can understand. They are not like us.

This, of course, is the root of the problem. It’s hard to put yourself in Elrond’s pointy shoes. How do you act? What kind of things do you say? Now, we of this enlightened age have access to a wide variety of examples of this; the actors and actresses who have played the elves in the Lord of the Rings films are great inspiration. More generally, though, I try to think of this: how would you feel if the weight of the world were on your shoulders? How would you feel if you knew you (and your people) had dropped that weight, dooming mortal beings to suffer and languish in barbarism? That’s how elves feel. All the time. Humans have the privilege of short lives and shorter memories – they can throw off their grief and their failures, dust themselves off, and try again. Elves lack this resilience. They are strong – far stronger than humans – but the breadth of history is just a moment for them, and their grief is never washed away. For them, time does not heal all wounds. They get to see their failures magnify through the ages of history. Elrond has been beating himself up for centuries over not killing Isildur on the slopes of Mount Doom and tossing the ring in the lava. Now, he sees a new generation faced with that ancient evil that he could have stopped, but didn’t. If you want to know why he’s serious and grim, that’s why.

This is tall order for your average D&D game, granted. Not everybody wants to be the serious guy, nor do they always want to play alongside him while you are making your fart jokes with your dwarf pals. That, though, is what elves are about – the long view, the weight of the past, and the hope for the future. They can be happy, too, but probably about things that others think are strange. They are not looking for quick fixes, they are not looking to forget their problems, and they are not looking for ephemeral pleasures. They are seeking to right wrongs, to save the good, and to fight against a world that seems forever sliding into the Shadow. I am currently playing with a guy who, I feel, is trying to do this on some level, but he is unsure how to proceed, since what an elf asks of you is to rise above the typical petty concerns of a D&D party. Still, he consistently refuses gold and treasure (because it has no worth to him) and, instead, thinks in the long term. It’s fun to watch, but I can tell it takes him a bit out of joint sometimes.

Still, it’s a lot better than another dual-scimitar wielding drow elf, right?

Campaign Morale in RPGs

Been a while since I’ve put on my gamer hat hereabouts, so here we go…

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

And if everybody but the cleric and the ranger quit, this probably happens.

Role-playing games campaigns are social enterprises that rely on a good group dynamic to be successful. In this sense, they are similar to team sports (observe how the jocks and the nerds doth rage at such an analogy! Indeed, it is beauteous to me!). A good RPG campaign, in order to work, goes beyond what actually happens at the table and into the social and (even) political sphere. Good GMs know this, and they set their games up to enhance it. Poor GMs don’t pay any attention to it, and they wonder why everybody quits their campaign halfway through.

A Word About Ideals…

Okay, so it’s worth pausing for a second to define what I consider an “ideal campaign” to be. An Ideal Campaign has the following characteristics:

  1. Everybody Has Fun: This is a minimum requirement. Everybody should be laughing, everybody should be hanging on every die roll, everybody should be invested in what is going on.
  2. Everybody Is Engaged in the Action: The storyline of the campaign should matter to the players. They should care about what happens and should want to know what happened last time. Ideally, they should even discuss what might or is happening with each other and with you outside of the game itself. In other words, they are so deeply invested in the game that it stays with them at least some of the time.
  3. Everybody Gets Along: The people playing are compatible personalities who, even if not great friends, generally get along well and are able to be comfortable with one another.
  4. Everybody is Organized: The game starts on time, it ends on time, the GM keeps things moving, the players show up consistently, and the meeting schedule is regular and consistent.

These four things, when combined, mean the “campaign morale” is high and everything is going well. If one or more of these things aren’t working, the campaign is not going well (at least according to the Ideal).

How Is This Done?

Assuming we all want to get to Goal#1 up there, we actually need to address these goals in reverse order.

Organization: The first order of business is Goal #4: getting organized. This is really essential, because it’s the basic requirement of having a game: everybody needs to show up regularly and on time. Understandably, people will miss the occasional session due to illness or unforeseen circumstances or what-have-you, but on average everybody should be there. Furthermore, the game should meet often enough to create a kind of momentum. If you meet once and then not again for two months, people forget what is happening, the GM is less invested in continuing (since people have forgotten about it), and the whole thing can just fade away. Meet regularly, show up on time, and you can go from there. The party that plays together, stays together.

You really should try to avoid this.

You really should try to avoid this.

Group Dynamic: As the GM, it is your job to make sure the party in your campaign is compatible and able to get along. If you have a friend that nobody else likes, inviting him to play may be a mistake for everybody. Now, generally I’ve found most gamers can get along with most other gamers for a few hours a week (or month), but there are exceptions (and you know who they are, too, I’d bet). Not inviting a buddy of yours because you think his incessant need to creepily leer at women might offend the two women playing might hurt his feelings, but hey – he’s the one being the creep, not you. That, of course, is an extreme case and, again, I’ve found personality conflicts like this to be rare.

More common (and arguably just as important), though, is simply thinking about everybody’s playstyle. A band of by-the-numbers point munchkins probably won’t understand or appreciate a real Role Player in their midst and vice versa. I personally recommend getting a variety of play-styles involved, assuming everybody understands how you are going to run the game. If everybody is on board and aware of the expectations, everything will go much more smoothly.

Engagement: This is a tough one. Even if you nail the first two, this one is probably the hardest one to master. It also might be the most optional of them all – players don’t have to love the plot of the game if they just love the action of playing – but I firmly believe having this in your corner makes everything better (everything!). As GM, this one lands mostly in your court. All players, when they make a character, are telling you the kind of things they want their character to be and do. If I make a greedy Halfling rogue with a complex about how short he is, I am pretty much telling you that I want to pick a half-orc’s pocket at bar and then have a bar-fight when he calls me “short-stuff”. You need to figure out what your players want and then you need to build the storyline around those desires. Alternately, you can tell everybody before the game starts what the game is going to be about and then ask everybody to make a character that fits inside that arena. Of the two, the latter is easier but the former is far more effective (if you can pull it off). In either case, if players love the concept, they will love the game, and they will be more likely to show up, more likely to have fun, and more likely (even) to get along.

Fun: The game is fun if people are smiling (or shuddering like they just saw a horror movie) after a session is over. How this achieved is complex, but generally I’d say the above three concerns are a good place to start. The other thing to remember is that this is a game. Try to avoid getting anyone’s ego involved. Laugh. Act like you’re having fun (which you should be, dammit, or else why do this?). Generally speaking, the more fun you have, the more fun everybody else will likely have.

In the end, these things all feed off one another. If you can get all four of them to work, then your campaign is guaranteed to be a success (I promise). If they all fail, people are going to be checking Facebook in the midst of the game and blowing off a session anytime a second cousin is in town. Believe me, I’ve been in both situations, and they are the best and the worst role-playing experiences I’ve ever had. Good luck out there, and have fun!

Burning Down the Forest

There’s a running joke/metaphor in my RPG group: anytime the players are faced with a complex problem, somebody will quip “why don’t we just burn down the forest?” I know it isn’t funny at first glance and, indeed, it might not be funny at all, but I find myself thinking of this metaphor a lot lately. It’s origins date back to junior high school. I was DMing a Dungeons and Dragons campaign for my friends and they were lost in a swampy rainforest infested with lizardmen who kept ambushing them (or it might have been a temperate forest and they were ambushed by hobgoblins – it hardly matters now). They couldn’t successfully track the lizardmen, so attacking their camp was impractical. Still, the lizardmen attacks needed to stop – they were running out of healing potions. Their solution?

“Hey guys,” one player said, “let’s burn down the whole forest!”

Hmmm...our situation has strangely not improved.

Hmmm…our situation has strangely not improved.

They had the magic and the equipment to do so, and flushing all the lizardmen out into the open seemed like a great idea, so they set about burning the place down. As you can imagine, it did not go well. In the first place, not only did it flush out the Lizardmen, but also everything else, meaning they had to fight hundreds of angry creatures all at once. It also rendered the forest impassable, and since their objective was to get through the forest, their plans were ruined. It also lost them a large number of allies – the elves that lived in the forest, the people of nearby towns, the ranger’s friends, the cleric’s god, and so on. Basically, the whole thing, while seemingly obvious and simple on its face, made everything much, much worse.

From then on “burning down the forest” was our term for a seemingly simple and elegant bad idea.

Beyond the gaming table, I feel this metaphor has relevance to the real world. A lot of relevance – too much, in fact. The world is constantly coming up with really simple, easy to understand wrong answers to complex problems (thanks, HL Menken!). All too often, these solutions come in the form of “throw more bombs at it” or “have more guns!” Then we have the audacity to be aghast as more people get blown up and shot.

Folks, this isn’t rocket science. The long term solution to violence is pretty much never “more violence” – it never has been and never will be. Violence is certainly easier, more satisfying, and a hell of a lot quicker. It even sometimes appears to work for a time (it sure settled WW1, right?) but later on it becomes evident that what you did was just create a new, bigger, and even more difficult problem (World War 2). This is not to say violence is not occasionally or even often necessary in self-defense, but we need to remember that such acts do not, in and of themselves, constitute a solution to anything. The Nazis weren’t destroyed because we blew them up; they were defeated in the long term because of the Marshall Plan, because of how badly they treated their own people, and because of how much those same people wanted to become something different than what Hitler had made them. The war was a big part of that, yeah, but it wasn’t the only factor and wouldn’t have been a lasting one save for what came after.

Now, here we are setting the forest on fire again, and apparently hoping that what grows there afterwards will like us. Call me a cynic, but I say we were better off staying out of the woods in the first place, regardless of how satisfying it might be to watch those hobgoblins burn.

The Unreality of Fantasy-Reality Television

This summer/fall, ABC aired a new reality TV program entitled The Quest. The idea was to make a competitive reality TV show, but have it set in a fantasy world. The show boasted high production values and a new spin on an old trope. As a fantasy enthusiast, I was intrigued and I watched a few episodes – namely the pilot, one somewhere in the middle, and the finale.

It was lame.

I'd rather be meeting Phil on the mat, these awesome costumes aside.

I’d rather be meeting Phil on the mat, these awesome costumes aside.

I was disappointed, but I suppose I wasn’t surprised. The words ‘creativity’ and ‘competitive reality TV’ are almost exclusive terms, and so The Quest was essentially the same as Big Brother, Survivor, or any number of other by-the-numbers reality shows, except with a costume design department and a special effects budget. You had twelve contestants (sorry – 12 paladins) compete in a series of medieval-themed challenges to earn immunity or prevent their own elimination (“banishment”). Around this was the trappings of a ‘plot’ – a really basic ‘bad guy conquering the world’ scenario wherein the winner (“One True Hero”) uses the sunspear to defeat him (but really doesn’t, because that whole scene was staged anyway).

There was a moment, in the pilot, where I thought the show would be really something fun to watch. It was early in the episode and the contestants had just been brought to “Everrealm” and were confined in a courtyard while the locals figured out what to do with them (i.e. the contestants were forced into each other’s company to get to know each other prior to the game really starting). One guy, really playing up the setting, said “we should escape!” I immediately imagined a show in which the show designers wanted stuff like this to happen – things that seem to be spontaneous acts that, in actuality, were envisioned by the producers and allowed to happen. I saw the paladins scaling the low walls and going off on some kind of real adventure.

But then everybody in the courtyard said “no”. They sat around, the guards got them and escorted them to a bunch of rooms, and that was it. Cue the boring for the next however-many episodes. Challenge, chatter, Challenge, elimination, confessional booth, repeat. Over and over and over.

Me, I’m sick of that nonsense. I think this concept could be something way more fun and way more interesting than what ABC gave us. To do it, though, we need to change a lot of things.

1) Everybody Knows It Isn’t Real, So Don’t Try So Hard!

One of the stupid parts of the show was watching these people pretend they were in a different world when everybody (even them) obviously knew it wasn’t real. As these people were not actors, it was not convincing. Ever LARP-ed? Think of the worst LARP with the worst role-players ever, and it was like that. We can’t make emotional connections to a contest we know is fake. We can’t be amazed by turns of events we see coming a mile off as part of the show’s structure.

What you need to do here is admit that the show isn’t real and proceed from there. The stakes need to be something concrete and plot cannot be window dressing for this to work. How to do that? Well, don’t require your participants to pretend – let them be themselves, say what they want, act how they choose. Give them something to actually care about. Me? I’d set this game up like a dungeon crawl, essentially. I’d have a big-ass maze with a series of confounding puzzles and ‘monsters’, but the treasure would be REAL. Like, actual cash. Gold bars. Fancy jewelry. The keys to a new car. Suddenly, the people don’t have to act – they WANT to slay the ‘giant’, since that means getting a bunch of gold coins worth a couple thousand dollars. They don’t want to be eliminated, since that means no more treasure. Basically, this is the same motivation that drives a lot of RPG groups.

2) Take a Cue From RPGs

Don’t have a pack of idiots who are all paladins but cannot actually affect their environment. Set up ground rules and split the contestants into ‘parties’ of four. Fighter (has a fake sword, can defeat monsters), Wizard (give him spell packs, let him affect the environment with them), Rogue (give him a cape that makes him invisible to NPCs, give him a sneak-attack ability that works when he tags somebody on the back), and Priest (give him the ability to heal and also fight). Give them high-quality foam weapons. Set the ground rules and tell the audience what they are. Let the parties loose in the dungeon. Have them race each other for treasure.

3) No Structured Elimination

Don’t eliminate somebody every episode – it’s boring. Only eliminate them when they are ‘killed’ by the obstacles. Even then, let the bad guys capture team members and force them to try and save them. In fact, you could get some pretty interesting team alliances going if several members of several parties are captured. Can the wizard and the rogue get back their fighter without borrowing the fighter from another party? What will they give them to make them help? How can they be trusted? See? Suddenly there are real stakes at play, here!

4) Interactive Environment

To do this, you need to build a playground – a big, complicated playground. Think of the whole show like an elaborate dungeon in a 3D platformer (like the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time). To get through, parties need to find tools to open doors or navigate passageways. They need to defeat monsters to claim treasure. All parties can work at cross-purposes for this – maybe some will find the key and another will find the sword that kills the troll, but neither party can succeed unless they can do both things. The finale? Well, after the inevitable casualties happen, you’ll be left with the remnants of a few parties who will all have to work together to claim the main prize–a couple hundred thousand dollars split among those who make it to the end. Assuming anyone does.

To me, that sounds like a reality show I’d watch. Then again, what do I know? I’m just a fantasy author.

Return From the Edition Wars

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Pictured: My friends and I. Guess who I am.

Once, in the dim mists of the past century, there was a glorious world wrought by the wizard Gygax. Deep dungeons, dark evils, and boundless adventure awaited those who journeyed there. The realm flourished and grew – Castle Greyhawk was joined by a vast world. Still more worlds came into being, each orbiting each other in the prosperous Prime Material Plane – Toril, Krynn, Sigil, and others. Sailing ships powered by bright magicks plied the Phlogiston between them. Heroes propagated by the millions.

In this bygone era, I was a ruler of such worlds. I wrought such wonders that those who found them were awestruck, and I laid such miseries upon the land that my name was spoken only as a curse. Heroes flourished beneath my gaze and I, myself, journeyed oft into the worlds of others to earn my own fortune.

But all was not well. The Worlds laid out by mighty Gygax were governed by irrational structures and fundamental laws. Though we of the People were well accustomed to their Byzantine vagaries, it was decided by gods more powerful than ourselves that a new age should dawn – one where the fundamental systems of the world were more logical, more sensible. So it was. But with this change came other, less positive changes. With the dawning of this new era, the worlds themselves – the ones I had walked for many years – grew stale and old. New worlds, made to replace the old, were pale shadows of what had come before. The gods who inherited the world from Gygax withered as their followers left and pursued other dreams and other worlds. I was among them, having grown weary of the dusty worlds of Gygax and hungry for new and greater adventures.

At length, starved of worship, those ancient gods died off.

Then came the New Gods – great gatherers of many-colored magicks, and wise in the ways of managing such worlds as Gygax had created. Or so we thought. They brought in a new era, one where the old systems were wiped away and replaced with a new one, so unlike the original that it was scarcely recognizable. Though still more streamlined and efficient than the old ways, it still lacked the life and vitality that Gygax had originally intended. It was solid, workmanlike, but hardly inspiring. I, from my seclusion in the far off worlds of Master Laws and Lord Wick, did not return. 

But lo, a new age hath dawned. The 5th iteration of mighty Gygax’s legacy has arrived, and a return to those halcyon days of yore may be at hand. I have heard the silver trumpets; I have answered the call. After long ages, I have taken up my staff and my sword and come to travel this new world. I will see if it is as I remember. If so, it may be that my ancient empire will once again flourish. Let heroes beware…