Monday, March 31, 2014

Girls in Gaming

I've been told that roleplaying and especially dungeon mastering are male dominated worlds. Personally, male DMs are all I've ever played under and when I was younger female players were uncommon. However, over the past eighteen years, I think a shift has begun towards more equal ground. I know that I am in the minority but I currently have two weekly groups where the female players outnumber the males! So, I wanted to delve a bit deeper into this issue and I thought the best way to do this would be to interview two female dungeon masters that I have met over the years and respect. I have renamed them for their privacy.

1. When, where, and how did you start roleplaying?

Mara: I was new to *city*, and knew very few people in the city, especially not anyone who 
           was particularly geeky. I met my first gaming group through some modelling I did                      around town. They were commenting on how few girl gamers they had in their group                and asked me to come along and see if I liked it. I started within a week of that                            conversation and have been gaming ever since, that was almost 10 years ago! What's 
           crazy is because of gaming, and me gaining some confidence through it, I was bold 
           enough to join another group through which my husband and I met!

Nara: I started roleplaying when I was 17 years old in my boyfriend’s basement which I had
planned on doing for a few months at that point. After watching him play and reading the books, I finally decided to join in.

2. What made you want to get into roleplaying?

Mara: It was a way to use my imagination, get creative, and enjoy throwing some dice around!

Nara: I had been interested in roleplaying since I had read the Hobbit as a young child;  
           however, growing up in a small French community and later in a small French school, I 
           didn't know anyone who I could approach to play role playing games.

3. Did you have a girl roleplaying role-model in the beginning? Do you have one now?    

Mara: My only "girl roleplaying" model that I had when I begun was another female gamer in 
           the group, who happened to be a writer and poet. She naturally played a bard, and 
           helped me really feel at ease pretending. I don't know that I have a particular role 
           model now when it comes to gaming in terms of roleplaying, but two people pop to 
           mind - Felicia Day, who I admire particularly in her roles in TableTop because she's 
           exceptionally badass and confidently makes her moves; and Kelley Armstrong - a 
           Canadian author who portrays women as strong kick-butt types that I can relate to.

Nara: I didn’t really have any role playing role models when I was younger. I was more of a 
          graphic novel and fantasy book fan then a gamer. Currently, I don’t really have any role 
          models as a gamer but I am a fan of women like Anita Sarkisian, strong female nerds 
          who are pushing for a more equalized approach to women in our culture.

4. What challenges did you face as a girl gamer?

Mara: I think the one thing that has been frustrating at different times is that there's always
            someone who thinks because you're a woman in the group, they can try their 
            seduction skills on you, in character. I don't game to attempt fake seductions, so it 
            really doesn't fly with me, and it bugs me that they think they can try.

Nara: As a girl gamer I have thankfully faced fewer challenges than most partially thanks to 
          the fact I’m outspoken and unafraid to voice my opinions of things that I feel are unfair 
          or biased. I am also blessed with a wonderful RP group who really don’t see me any 
          different than they are. However, in the ‘virtual’ gaming world I have faced more 
          challenging situations that have turned me away from most MMORPGS and Online FPS. 
          I’m not a fan of being a target because of my gender so I would rather just avoid those 
          situations all together.

5. Was there ever a time that you felt real sexism? Explain.

Mara: Nope!

Nara: Oh real sexism, yes there have been many times. I’ve had to deal with it, in the context of
           gaming less so then in the other sectors of my life; however, even while running female
           gaming events at Con I have run across sexism, such as male gamers expressing their    
           dislike of the fact that we had female only events. With comments like: “Why do girls 
           need their own events? Do their thumbs work differently or something?” I even had 
           someone who was so displeased that he wrote a letter about how unhappy he was 
           about our female only events. 

6. What advice would you or do you give to new girl gamers?

Mara: Forget all of society's rules about what you're allowed to do. Remember when your 
           parents said, "You can be anything you want when you grow up"? You can do anything 
           you want, as whoever you want, in D&D. It's extremely empowering.

Nara: The advice I usually give to new female gamers is, do it! Game! If you are interested in 
          gaming then dive in head first and let yourself fall in love with the awesomeness that is 
          the world of RP. If you come up against challenges, then reach out to other female 
          gamers in our community or just meet them head on. If you have to deal with sexism, 
          then voice your disapproval and let them know you aren't going anywhere because you 
          have the right to be there and enjoy your hobby just like anyone else.

7. What moment are you most proud of as a girl gamer?

Mara: Any moment where I get to try something ridiculous, and it goes well, or the nights of
            awesome role-playing are really good for me.

Nara: I am proud of a lot of my gaming accomplishments, however there are 2 moments that 
          are tied in my mind. The first being when we had our first very successful girl gaming 
          event at Con which was the second girl gaming event, we had excellent participation. 
          The second was the first time my daughter told me she wanted to make her own 
          character and learn to RP at just 2 years old.

Friday, March 28, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: The Weirdest.

Here’s one of the strangest stories I have in my collection:

So I announce to my group that we are going to be starting a Waterdeep campaign and one of my players comes to me with a request: He wants to know if he can be a rogue/assassin Minotaur. My first instinct is: “There’s no way that’s going to work out!”, but I keep an open mind and tell him that I’ll give him a chance.

He rolls it up and gives it decent Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution, but very poor Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Pretty standard for a Minotaur and not bad for an assassin, but then he adds in some very interesting and ingenious add-ons. First, he invests some starting money in padded hoof-covers so his feet are silent; next he goes and buys some weapon-black (this is a kind of dark oil that players can coat their weapons in so they don’t shine/glint) and uses it on his horns so they don’t stand out when he is hiding in shadows; and finally he puts in a request for a magical item, a Wand of Shrinking (this was not unusual at the time, as it was common practice for me to give every PC an item to start with).
“Why a Wand of Shrinking?” I asked him. “You’ll see,” he replied with a mischievous grin. Me, being young and foolish, gave him the wand.

As the campaign got started he mentioned that he wanted to work for someone with “more than a few enemies” so he would have lots of work. I obliged him and paired him with a tavern owner attempting to kill his way up the ladder and one day become a Lord of Waterdeep. He was thrilled with this and his first target was assigned to him within a few minutes of playing.

After making some inquiries and paying off a few beggars, he managed to track down his target. “What now?” I asked expecting him to charge in and attack. “I’m going to shrink him,” he said confidently. Suddenly, it dawned on me what his plan was and I obliged. He walked up to his target and used his impressive Charisma to get in close and then the wand came out! As soon as this happened, the target shrunk down to roughly the size of a one year old. According to the effects of the wand, the spell would last for 1 hour and I figured my player would use the size advantage to squash the target like a bug. But then he did something I didn't expect, he ATE him! He picked up this shrunken man and gobbled him down like Hannibal Lector. “What was that for!?” I exclaimed. “No body, no evidence,” he answered. I was both horrified and impressed.

Now, I had to work out in my mind the physics of it all. A Minotaur’s stomach can easily handle a shrunken man, but what about when the spell wears off? Well your average cow’s stomach can hold 50 gallons worth of material and that translates into roughly 400 pounds of weight. So, giving my Minotaur friend the favorable end of the calculation, even when the spell wears off he could digest two fully grown human men at a time. Amazing and disgusting, no?

Anyway, the shrinking of targets and chowing down went on for a few sessions until one faithful night my Minotaur friend ran into two targets, a Wizard and his apprentice. To his doom, the Minotaur went after the apprentice first. As the Wizard watched his young elf ward nommed down like a Big Mac, I had an idea. I had a wonderful, awful idea. It was the kind of idea that puts a smile on a DM’s face. Just before the Minotaur could take his final swallow of his late-night elf, the Wizard casts disenchant on the elf, bringing him back to normal size, and then pulls out a Wand of Enlargement, causing the elf to grow four times his normal size. Do the math: A 150 pound elf x 4 = 600 pounds inside a container that can only hold 400 pounds. The end result was a Minotaur going boom from the internal pressures.

My friend wasn't very happy with the result but, in the end, he realized that his character had become a bit too gruesome. I can easily (and thankfully) say that this was the weirdest PC I've encountered to date. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

3 Magical Items That Can Ruin Your Game

Oh it’s happened to me and I’ll bet it’s happened to many of you out there as well. The DM gives out a magical item and one way or another it completely railroads the whole adventure. It might unexpectedly render a character useless at the most horrible moment, or it might make a character so powerful they are no longer controllable, or it might be so fascinating that all other concerns for the party and the adventure are lost. No matter how it happens, the DM immediately wishes they could take it back and the player(s) are lost in its powers.

So rather than me lecturing all of you on how to avoid disaster, I’d prefer to give you three strong examples of what I mean so you can see for yourselves. For most of these, I’m talking from personal experience; however, I have no doubts that there are a dozen or more items out there that could make an equally nasty mess of things.

So, without further ado, here are three culprits that have kept many a DM up at night:

1.       The Deck of Many Things
Am I right? As a DM, when you hand one of these suckers over to the PCs, you may as well be asking for your campaign to be hijacked. And, for those of you who don’t know what this Pandora-like deck of magical cards is capable of doing, please allow me to enlighten you with the 3rd Edition effects:
  • Balance - Changes the character to a radically different alignment.
  • Comet - If character single-handedly prevails in the next hostile encounter, the character attains the next experience level.
  • Donjon - Character is imprisoned and loses all gear and spells are stripped from the victim in any case.
  • Euryale - Causes a permanent penalty on all saving throws.
  • Fates - Changes reality to allow the character to avoid even an instantaneous occurrence if so desired.
  • Flames - Causes an enmity between the character and an outsider.
  • Fool - Character loses experience points and is forced to draw another card from the deck.
  • Gem - The character gains significant wealth.
  • Idiot - The character's Intelligence score is permanently lowered.
  • Jester - The character can gain experience points or two more draws from the deck.
  • Key - A major magic weapon appears out of nowhere in the character's hand.
  • Knight - A fighter appears from out of nowhere and serves the character loyally until death.
  • Moon - The character gains a number of magical wishes which come true.
  • Rogue - This card causes one of the character’s NPC friends to turn against him.
  • Ruin - The character immediately loses all of his wealth and non-magical possessions.
  • Skull - The character must defeat a powerful undead creature alone.
  • Star - One of the character's ability scores increases.
  • Sun - The character gains a beneficial magic item.
  • Talons - Every magic item the character owns or possesses disappears permanently.
  • Throne - The character becomes more charismatic and gains a small castle.
  • Vizier - The character gains an answer to solve any single problem or answer fully any question upon request.
  • The Void - This card sends a character's soul to some other desolate location, leaving his body in a catatonic state, requiring the adventuring party to find a way to rescue the soul.

After an inspection of those cards, it’s easy to see how they can unbalance everything. Even if you limit the pulls each character is allowed to just one, the chaos caused by this item can easily be a game changer. Sure, it seems like a fun way to shake up a dull story; but my question would then be: If the story needs this magic to shake it up, why not just start a more interesting one?

2.       Wish Spells/Items
Hey, this worked for Aladdin so it should work for my adventure, right? Wrong!
When it comes to wishing for things, players instantly turn from timid and innocent little bunny rabbits into greedy and diabolical storm giants! I don’t know what it is but instantaneous infinite power seems to breed temporary insanity (no wonder Wall Street has so many issues!). As a DM, that thing that you were hoping the players would use it for will usually be ignored, or at the very least included with something else.

On the few occasions that I have used them, they were reserved for the end of huge adventures where their powers were desperately needed to undo terrible wrongs. And even then, I’m sure I spotted that little twinkle of chaos in my player’s eyes. I’ve seen witty DMs turn a greedy wish against the players, twisting their words for an undesired outcome; but in my opinion, a smart DM will avoid wish spells altogether.

3.       Time Travel Spells/Items
Okay, let’s get one thing straight, this is D&D not Dr. Who!  There are loads of other RPGs out there (including Dr. Who) that will allow you to go zooming through the ages, witness the end of time, or go back to try to hook up your mother and father so your existence is assured. With respect, if you want to play that kind of a game, go fill your boots! But, in my opinion, that should not be a central mechanic for a D&D campaign and I’ll tell you why: Firstly, as a mortal DM, it is almost impossible to imagine what effects the choices your players make in the past/future will have on the timeline. You are going to be quickly overwhelmed when your players make decisions that change everything and usually in very bad ways. Secondly, there are so many unknown factors to resolve where time travel is involved that you’d better have a quantum physics degree. If someone kills you as a child, do you disappear immediately or slowly? If a previously fought war is now avoided, does your character from the future suddenly forget about it? I think I feel a headache coming on.    

Honorable mention goes to cursed items with very difficult cures. These can turn characters to stone, feeblemind, permanently polymorph, change alignment, or even kill. While they can make for interesting plot twists, be sure that if you use them you always have the remedy available where the players can find it. Honorable mention also goes to intelligent weapons. My experience with intelligent weapons has been mixed at best. Depending on how you want to play these NPC-ish items, I find that characters usually go to one of two extremes. Either they fall in love with the weapon and become the weapon’s henchman/woman rather than the other way around, or they ignore/dislike the personality of the weapon and it becomes a kind of comic relief. Why not just have actual henchmen and let weapons be weapons? I have used them in past, but usually for some plot purpose and not as a reward.

At any rate, I’m certain that there are reasonable ways and situations where every single magical item in existence can be used with moderation and grace. I just haven’t encountered it yet (lol). The fact is, introducing any random or unforeseeable variable into a roleplaying equation can be fun but also distracting. My advice to the players and DMs that use these unpredictable items: be prepared for anything!

Friday, March 21, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: Here Lies...

I asked my Facebook community to describe the best death or loss of character they have ever experienced. Here are some of the replies:

- GenCon 2006. We're playing in the D&D Open with one of WotC's designers GMing the session. He warns us that he won't fudge dice or damage. I'm playing a level 6 Dragon Shaman.
We enter the first room, and are ambushed by what I remember as a magic-wielding ape of some sort. In the first round, he fires some kind of heat ray at me, rolls a critical hit, and kills me outright. The GM looks a bit stunned.
I then go wander around the convention hall for the next 3.5 hours while my friends complete the scenario.

- The most epic death (of many) for my favorite character was in D&D as well, many, many years ago.    All thanks to the random encounter generator!
 Our party was staying in town and a couple of us decided to help out the city watch. As we were patrolling, we heard some screaming from the cemetery. As the fearless swashbuckler, I charge in to save the damsel. The fighter came with me (a Minotaur, I believe) and we found a vampire feeding on his next victim.
The fight ensued and this was during the age when vamps did level drains (2 per hit if memory serves). After a few rounds, the vampire charms the great axe wielding Minotaur and the two of them start attacking my character who has lots quite a few levels already but is too stupid to give up. It came down to one round and we all rolled for initiative and we all got the same number. So, we decided it was all simultaneous. In a glorious few seconds, the vampire bites down and drops me to level -1; the fighter makes a critical and takes a ridiculously large chunk out of me dropping me to -20 or more; and I stab the vampire slaying it.
The Minotaur snaps out of his charmed state and has two corpses at his feet. But, we saved the
girl! I figured it was a good time to retire (for a while) and what was left with my corpse was buried. As a bonus, the town made me a statue to commemorate the hero that saved them, Haha!

- My friend and I were playing our little campaign and, as per usual with our group, we had some very...unusual things happen. We were fighting a horde of spiders in a forest and a friend of mine was using a warlock or something like that (hard to recall) and they decided it would be a good idea to use a multi-target fire the woods. Well needless to say, they rolled a 1 and the spell proceeded to torch the spiders...and the forest...and in as well. Crispy just doesn’t quite describe it.

- Not a death, but I was in a party doing the Vault of the Drow (AD&D) MANY (MANY MANY) years ago. At one point, in order to gain safe passage for our party, we sold one of our party members (female half-elf) into slavery to the Drow Elves. Dude was not very happy, LOL!

- Not me, but a game in which I was playing, another player backstabbed herself in the stomach for max damage.... rolled four natural ones in a row...

- Had a halfling rogue at level 1 and met up with a giant frog. He attacked and got a natural 20. Nommed. Quickest character for me ever!

Monday, March 17, 2014

D&D and Minecraft

Wait a minute…what? Dungeons and Dragons and Minecraft? Al must be on the happy sauce again!

But hold on, I’m serious and I really want to talk about this. What does D&D and Minecraft have in common? Where do they differ? And what can each of them learn from the other? To find out, read on:

First off some stats (because everyone loves stats):
Year started:
Estimated regular monthly players:
2.25 million(1)
1.5 million(2)
Estimated net worth:
1 billion dollars (US)(3)
900 million dollars (US)(4)
1) Wizards of the Coast, 1999; 2) Daniel Kaplan, 2011; 3) Wikipedia, 2006; 4) Fortune Magazine, 2012.

For those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a PC/Mac/Xbox/Playstation/handheld game started by a man named Markus "Notch" Persson. The basic idea behind the game is to play a character in a randomly generated world where almost everything (and I mean almost everything) is movable, collectable, and useable in some fashion. Its “Lego-like” appearance and distinctive/intentional pixelated graphics have caught the attention of many gamers who like the “retro look”. The first-person game involves building; exploring; mining; farming; landscaping, forging metals into tools, items, weapons, and armor; raising/taming animals; fighting zombies, creepers, slimes, witches, skeletons, etc.; and trading with NPCs. It is extremely open ended, has almost no plot-line to speak of, and appears deceptively easy to play. There are also multiple game modes which include: Creative (the player is able to build and explore with almost no limits or danger); Survival (the player must work for everything they get while trying to fend off harmful enemies); Hardcore (same as Survival only much more dangerous); and Multiplayer (payers log onto an internet server and can organize co-operative play or PvP within the same map). If you are interested in seeing how it all looks/works, I recommend Paul Soares Jr.’s videos on YouTube, especially the “How to Survive and Thrive” series of which the first episode can be found HERE.

So what does Minecraft and D&D have in common? Well for starters both are RPG based. In D&D you fight monsters and hunt for treasure in order to level up/improve your character and progress the story. While there is no real “story” in Minecraft, your character still fights monsters and hunts for resources/treasure to level up and create/construct whatever it is you wish within the game world. Secondly, both games have some pretty standard fantasy elements within their frameworks such as enchantments, potions, teleportation, hit points, and even dragons. Thirdly, and perhaps the most significant of all, in both games the player is free to do almost anything they wish within the framework of the game world. What you can accomplish is limited only by your imagination. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest selling points of D&D and I’m sure that many players of Minecraft would say the same.

So where does Minecraft and D&D differ? To start, they were each born out of two very different generations. D&D was a child of the seventies and had its origins from popular fiction, novels, myths, and legends. Minecraft was born into the modern digital age and had its roots in previous PC games such as “Dwarf Fortress, Dungeon Keeper, and later Infiniminer” (Wikipedia), as well as…well…D&D. The vehicle for play is also different as D&D works best as a face-to-face sociable tabletop game, where Minecraft is more of a solitary computer/console game. D&D is also more story/goal based where Minecraft is open-ended and has a greater focus on construction and use of resources. And while both games have NPCs, in D&D they are quite diverse and can function on multiple levels while the Minecraft NPCs only serve the purpose of trade and could do with a bit more character/versatility.

Finally, what can both games learn from each other? The short answer is: a lot. Minecraft already took a page from D&D when its game designers realized it had to be more than just a sandbox construction game. However, in my opinion, they haven’t taken it far enough. Minecraft can still go further into D&D’s wheelhouse and be a better game. Make the NPCs more interactive, add greater quests/achievements and more ‘boss’ type enemies, perhaps some spells and spell casting could be thrown in, introduce races and classes, and a greater range of weapons and tools would be excellent. As it currently stands, Minecraft is still evolving and changing with each new version (since the game’s release there have been seven major updates/alterations) and I’m sure that some of the things I’ve brought up are being considered as I speak and will be implemented in the future.

As for D&D, the main lesson it could learn from Minecraft is to be more open-ended. This is an area that D&D used to be strong in for many years but I think too much emphasis has been placed on pre-generated adventures, modules, miniatures, and tiles in recent times. These pre-generated items, while very well done and interesting, are taking away from one of the true strengths of D&D: Imagination! My advice to Wizards of the Coast is to give DMs the framework like 2nd Edition did with its boxed sets. They gave us the “world” but still left things sufficiently open for everyone’s creativity and originality to flow. Leave the blanks blank! In this regard, I hope the game designers of D&D Next have learned their lesson from 4th Edition. You don’t need to spoon feed the DMs and thus the PCs every NPC, encounter, magic item, and event. Give us some locations, a few suggestions, and some fascinating stories to get us going and then turn us loose. Don’t try to control us, give us the tools to create.

I think the other lesson that Minecraft holds for D&D is the old saying: keep it simple stupid. Minecraft has done very well for itself in a very short amount of time because it’s simple and fun. The popularity of the game has exploded and it’s not because of the ‘insane’ graphics, or lifelike gameplay, or award winning plotline. None of these things exist in Minecraft. However, what it does have is plain old simple fun and apparently that trumps everything else…who knew? (sarcasm Sheldon, sarcasm) As far as I’m concerned, D&D needs to do a little soul searching when this new edition arrives and realize that if it’s not simple and fun, everything else doesn’t matter.

So there you go, two titans in their respective fields both able to up their game by learning from one another. As D&D celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, I can’t help but wonder if Minecraft will last that long. And if it does…what will it look like?

Friday, March 14, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: The One That Ran Away

Here’s another story from my personal collection:

So, we’d been playing a campaign (2nd Edition) for about three months at four/five hours a week. The players all started at 3rd level and were nearing the end of the story at 8th or 9th. I had a pretty balanced group with a warrior, a bard, a rogue, a wizard, and a ranger and they all worked together nicely. In fact,  the roleplaying had been fantastic all campaign long as the characters were mercenaries trying to hold the group together just long enough to get the job done. They also had a nice range of alignments going from Lawful Good (warrior) to Lawful Evil (rogue) which made for some interesting arguments.

After a whirlwind chase through a forest and several ambushes, the final dungeon had been found and the “boss” for the campaign was waiting inside. The characters readied themselves for hell and they were not disappointed. I threw everything at them I could think of to put them off their games; mummies, trolls, a black pudding, a dark naga, and more than a few traps. I even turned one of the characters to stone for about a quarter of the dungeon. But they were smart players and teamwork pays off in my games, so they managed to have an extended rest at the right time and got to the last room with only minor damage on them and most of their spells intact. That was when they discovered that the “boss” they had been chasing all this time, a rather unimpressive looking elf, was really an elder green dragon in disguise.

With barely a moment’s hesitation, my players jumped in to take him down. I vowed to not hold back and to use all of the dragon’s attacks/spells to the utmost. Right from the first round this battle was epic and it definitely lands in my top five all time. It started about two-thirds of the way through one session and took up all of a second. The highlights included: a character dying and being brought back with a Rod of Resurrection; the dragon opening up a portal and bringing forth a dozen or more lizardmen; the wizard, having completely used up all of his spells, sacrificing his spell book and using it as a magic bomb; and the dragon smashing out of the dungeon to fight the last few rounds of the battle outside under the stars on the side of an Incan style temple. It was very back and forth all battle long with both sides gaining and losing advantage several times. And, just when I figured that the end was nigh and the players had this fight in the bag, the rogue did something I had never seen before nor would ever see again afterward.

He ran away. That’s right, brave Sir Robin bravely ran away.

Unbeknownst to me or to the other players, Mr. Lawful Evil had made a decision at the beginning of the campaign that should he feel that any fight was a threat to him, he would simply pack up his stuff and bugger off on his own. So, despite the fact that this was undeniably the last fight of the campaign, he had reached his limit and yelled goodbye to all of the other players as he flew away using his Cloak of the Bat. A few jaws dropped around the roleplaying room, including my own; a few people simply laughed; and at least one got upset. But, as far as the rogue was concerned, he had made his decision and was playing his selfish character to the letter.  I really had no grounds for dispute.

Thankfully, even minus the rogue, the players managed to polish off the green dragon and complete the campaign. As a small reward, I did an epilogue for each character spinning a short tale of what happened to them over the rest of their careers. However, when it came time for me to tell the tale of the rogue, it was payback time! I spoke at length on how he managed to escape the battle unharmed and how he returned to a previous dungeon the party had visited to recover some loot that had been left behind. It was then I told him, much to his horror, that something dark and powerful had been missed the first time around. I spoke of how he tried to run and how he tried to fight but when this darkness finally got a hold on him, he had no friends nearby to hear his powerful screams.      

Monday, March 10, 2014

5 Ways to Be a Better PC

Fundamentally, I look at D&D campaigns as stories. Each adventure or event is a chapter and the campaign as a whole is a novel. It should have set-up, background, main characters, side characters, plots, sub-plots, victories, losses, triumph, and heartbreak. Maybe characters will die along way (Boromir) and maybe new characters will come to the party late (Lando). There should be some twists and a few unexpected detours. The end result should never be certain and danger should be stalking at every turn. But most important of all, there should be fun, excitement, and camaraderie. If those three things are present, the story will almost write itself.

So when playing D&D as a character, certain questions must be asked of oneself. Am I aiding or hindering the story? Am I willing to adapt to the twists and turns that are sure to come my way? Am I putting my personal needs and wants ahead of my character’s?  If the answer to any of these questions brings you to a negative place, stop and ask yourself why. I have encountered many players who just can’t seem to get past their own expectations of the game to truly play and enjoy their characters. For some, they just want to kill things. From towering human barbarians to tiny halfling wizards, some players game to slaughter foes. If they aren't killing, they aren't happy and because of this attitude they miss out on a lot of the roleplaying fun. Others are after the “real world” pursuits of fame, fortune, and power. These folk will jump at any opportunity for gain and self-improvement and often miss the opportunities to work with or prop up the others in their party. There are also those who play to show off and assert their dominance over the mechanics of the game. These are the min-max players and the folk who want to squeeze every last drop out of the rules to make their characters “the best”. Meanwhile, they have very little regard for those players who just want to play their characters well and have fun.

So, what can you do if you feel like you are one of these players, or might be becoming one of these players, or have a friend who is one of these players? Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much of a market for roleplayer rehab or SPA: Selfish Players Anonymous (Hi, my name is Al… and it’s been five weeks since I last railroaded an adventure). But instead of dwelling on the negative, let’s turn it around and look at five things every player can do to make their characters and their campaigns a little better:

1)      Help Others
Good players help each other out. They forge alliances, watch backs, and even sacrifice their life and limb to protect. This also comes with a certain amount of good-natured teasing and constructive criticism. (Friends don’t let friends drink random potions!) You can tell, especially when sitting in the DMs chair, when a group really works together. That is when the game becomes more than paper and dice and evolves into a real story. Both combat and roleplaying are lifted to whole new level and the game dynamic takes off. So next time you are sitting down to your game ask yourself the question: what can I do to help?      

2)      Take Chances
No one wants to read about a character that does nothing. Sitting back and letting others or the DM do all of the work is boring. Get your character out there! When the end of the campaign eventually comes, do you want to be the person that says, “Wow, you guys were really great in that story!” or, do you want to be the person that says, “That was a lot of fun! We did it!”? It’s the subtle difference between being part of a group or being in a group. Some folks never realize that there even is a difference. If you are one of these people, wake up and get involved!

3)      Be Heroic
Sometimes it’s corny, or cheesy, or dangerous, but being heroic and putting your neck out on the line is a big part of this game and it all depends on the character you want to play. For a selfless lawful good knight, being heroic might mean wading into wave after wave of goblins to protect a town of helpless villagers. On the other hand, for a greedy neutral thief, being heroic might mean killing those same goblins so you can find their treasure horde later on and who gives a fig for what happens to the villagers! No matter what it means for your particular character, take advantage of any opportunity to make your story epic.      

4)      Know Your Limits
As was previously mentioned in one of my earlier articles, know what your character can do and what it should not do. Avoid situations like the robed wizard standing at the head of the group taking the brunt of the damage and the full-plate wearing warrior standing at the back using a wand. If you are a thief, use your stealth; if you are a cleric, turn undead and heal people. If you want to play a support character, don’t take a hand-to-hand combat monk. If you want to mow enemies down, don’t take the bard. Make sure that class and the race are a good fit for the whole package of person you want to be. It’s okay to branch out from time to time but don’t try to swing from tree to tree. Eventually, you will fall.

5)      Be Modest in Victory and Gracious in Defeat
When you accomplish things in D&D it can be very exciting. It can also be equally disappointing when something nasty happens. The key is to never allow either event turn you into a bad player. I will be the first to admit, I have let defeat get to me in the past. A killed character caused me to lose heart in the game once upon a time and I let it change the way I played for the worse. Oppositely, I have seen players toot their own horns for weeks about killing a boss or saving the whole party from certain death.  Don’t let either of these happen to you! Despite how much you love your character, or how much you may loath losing, accept that both good and bad things are going to happen. Understand that interesting stories require sacrifice and hard work to accomplish goals. This game, just like life, is not always easy and that’s a good thing.

Friday, March 7, 2014

D&D Campfire Stories: “Let’s get it on!”

This week I asked the question on Facebook: While playing D&D, or similar roleplaying games, what monster have you had the most fun fighting and why? Here are some of the responses:

-          Fun question! I'll try to keep it short. Fighting an orc chieftain that wasn't wanted by the tribe he took by force, so they watched to see the outcome. It was Savage Worlds, which meant he had bennies to spend, too, which created a real back and forth. It wasn't just whittling down HP, but repeatedly countering almost death dealing blows on both sides. Felt like actual strategy on both sides - will he spend his benny to protect himself this round, or does he think he can take the hit and use it to smash us? Very climactic and dramatic.

-          Most fun fighting? Easy, Dragons. The epic scale of a dragon fight is what D&D is all about. Life is   
       always hanging in the balance. As a DM, I loved running drow and of course, dragons.

-          In a Palladium game, I chased the party with an iron golem through a cliff-top fortress. They were no match for it toe-to-toe and they knew it. So the group ran all over, trying to come up with a tactic to fight it, all the while trying to at least slow it down with parting shots and debris thrown in front of it. It was very cinematic. Eventually, they lured it towards a room with a balcony overlooking the vertical cliff face. They taunted it and engaged in hit and run tactics until it barreled after them full bore. One character ran directly in front, as the bait. She grabbed a rope they had tied up there and jumped over the edge as the golem reached for her. It's mass was too great to stop instantly, and tumbled over the balcony, into the raging river below. They were so proud of themselves.

-          Most fun I have ever had playing a group, was nothing epic or even close. Heck it wasn`t even supposed to be all that dangerous. The group had been failing recon rolls all day. The rogue had been taken prisoner by the sprites, as a spy. They found him hanging in a foot trap looking rather upset, which of course generated a search by the Ranger, who promptly got lost and captured by Kobolds. After a while, this caused the Barbarian to follow only to end up being caught by the Sprites as well.  The cleric got roped while doing his prayers. The magic user got charmed by a sprite. By the end of the night, every party member was a captive of one side or the other. They had walked into a battle field between the two races. I left them hanging for a week trying to decide what to do. They were only supposed to observe from a high hill not get into. Now in the end, after a couple of evenings of laughter and loss of all their equipment, the group was rescued by a local Druid who had a quest for them. But I still remember the look on their faces when the Sprite leader began questioning the Rogue. On the second night, for as they were captured I caused each to make an observational type roll. None of them rolled over a 5 with attribute bonuses, so they were left in the dark for a week.

-          Vast hordes of low level one-hit-kill monsters. Because I like Great Cleave. Plus it makes you, as a player, feel epic.

-          Getting caught unprepared by a troll is always fun but my favorite fight was against humans. Defending a keep against an opposing army of humans.

-          Dire badger that ended up killing the entire party. It was hilarious and sad all at the same time.

-          Honestly, there was nothing better to fight some minions of any evil overlord (or something similar). At one point in time - while in a lair of a big and evil vampire - we were so tired of killing his cultists/followers, that we actually discussed what to do with the last one - while he was still standing there in front of us. He was totally frightened and shivering, with about a dozen of his fellow mates lying beheaded or otherwise killed all around him. His weapon was in his shaky hand, his eyes getting bigger and bigger while those strangers (us) were totally IGNORING HIM while discussing if we should kill him right where he stood or if we should give him a chance to run or what else. In the end, we let him off the hook with a raised finger and a "Don't do it again!" (and some seriously wet, dirty, and smelly trousers). Killing the vampire after that last encounter was just the cherry on top of the cake.

-          Once a mage I was playing had to go through a series of challenges to gain magical knowledge. In one of the challenges a hound archon appears and says 'You must challenge me and win to advance!' So I challenged him to a whistling contest...

-          I had a group of first levels that discovered a group of 20 kobolds around a campfire in the basement of a ruin. The party's presence had gone undiscovered until then and they were quietly arguing over a plan when their mage brought up what seemed like a brilliant idea. They had found four potions earlier they couldn't identify, so he thought if they tied them together and threw them into the fire (from a safe distance, of course), they might explode and do some damage. This was first edition AD&D, and the DM's guide had an awesome table on what might happen if you mixed potions together.
When they tried this, what ACTUALLY happened was indeed an explosion, but it affected everything within a 20 foot radius with 150% of the strength of one of the potions, and made those effects permanent. So, when the smoke cleared, they had a group of very surprised seventh level kobolds on their hands...
Needless to say they ran, but over the next several adventures there were always these reports in the background about a group of "super kobolds" that they knew they would eventually have to deal with. If their characters had been laughing as hard as their players were, they never would have made it out of there!

-          I have a half orc assassin that I have been playing since 1980 or is it 81. Anyways, as we all know assassins suck at face to face combat. I was all about the sneaking and the back stabbing and the assassinating. Then one day our party, consisting of myself, a paladin, and ranger, were skulking through a dungeon. I was ranging out ahead because of my sneaky-sneaky abilities. Well I discovered a pit trap by falling in to it. Now, under normal circumstances, despite some damage from the fall, I would either be able to climb out on my own or wait for the rest of the party to catch up and pull me out. All which would have been just fine if it weren't for the fact that I wasn't alone in the pit. I had two undead ogres as pit buddies. But they were not slow, stupid undead ogres, but rather the fast and very strong undead ogre pit buddies. So I am doing my very best to not get killed by said pit buddies till help arrived, which did a round or so later. So there, 20ft above me are our overly brave paladin and ranger. They both yelled down that they were going to jump in and save me. I am like "Please hurry!". So, the DM tells them that if they can make their dexterity checks at a +2, they will be able to jump in to the pit unharmed. Well “How hard can that be?” they asked. Both having exceptional dexterity scores, what are the chances of failing? Well, in goes the paladin. He rolls a natural 20, which in our group means you just blew your dexterity. So the DM tells the player to make a saving through vs petrification cause the ground is rushing up at him. How hard can that be. He rolls a natural 1, which in our group means you just blew your saving throw. WAM! The paladin hits the ground, knocked out for like 5 rounds. The Ranger sees this and jumps in after the paladin to "save" the both of us. He too rolls a natural 20 and has to roll a save vs petrification. Guess what? Natural 1. WAM! He hits the ground and is out for like 6 rounds. The long and the short of it is, I had to fight the GD undead ogres on my own. By the time my two "rescuers" woke up, I was out of the pit throwing a rope down to them. To this day, at least 20yrs later, we still laugh and laugh about that one. Dumb asses!!

Do you have a monster/fighting story? Feel free to share it below!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

D&D's Dark Past (Part 2 of 2)

In last week’s article, I talked about two of the most harmful and unnecessary blows to D&D’s reputation in history, as well as how the after-effects fueled by the media and certain religious groups made the game appear to be satanic, harmful, and a general waste of time with no real benefits. This week we’ll see the counter argument and how the gaming community fought back against this wrongful stigma.

One of the earliest defenders of D&D, and rightly so, was its chief creator, Mr. Gary Gygax. In an August 26, 1985 New York Times interview, Gygax said, "Accusing the D&D games as the reason for teenage suicide is a cross between McCarthyism and the Salem witch hunts. I have not seen one iota of clinical evidence linking role-playing gaming with a teenage suicide.  This is only a coincidence because, unfortunately, teenage suicide is an epidemic in our country.  Unfortunately, what we have here are religious fanatics who object to the mentioning of mythical gods, demons and devils in the game.  From a game aspect, who else do the good guys fight?"  And he was perfectly correct. Both the American Association of Suicidology and Health Canada conducted studies in the late eighties that found no link between roleplaying and suicide (GAMA). Further, from the mid 1990’s to present, several clinical reports have emerged that not only classified roleplaying as safe to play but also praised them for their ability to “boost the ego” of many players. You can read many of these reports on and this is also a wonderful resource for any of you doing a psychology or sociology degree!  

Most vocal of all was a man by the name of Michael A. Stackpole. (Yes, the writer of Star Wars novels as well as his own original story lines) In 1990, Mr. Stackpole wrote and released a document entitled The Pulling Report (See Here). This document examined the arguments and “facts” listed by B.A.D.D. and Patricia Pulling step by step and systematically refuted their claims and debunked their evidence as false. He essentially exposed their arguments as ridiculous and did not have a hard time doing so. After this report became widely available to the public, both Patrica Pulling and B.A.D.D. began to lose attention and followers. B.A.D.D. effectively became extinct in 1997, after Ms. Pulling succumbed to lung cancer. Despite her misgivings, I wish her soul well and thank her for her efforts. Ms. Pulling exposed a real fear about D&D that needed to be addressed and examined. If it had been left to simmer, it would have become the elephant in the room and we might still be dealing with the issues left unsaid to this very day. In my opinion, Mr. Stackpole gave many who were having second thoughts about roleplaying a clear conscious that told them it was alright to play.    

Lastly, I would like to take a moment to speak about my own personal experiences. I have first-hand experience seeing D&D raise people's confidence, improve their ability to function in both small and large groups, increase their critical thinking skills, improve their imaginations, and have fun at the same time. D&D, and roleplaying games in general, are the only games I can think of that combine the skills of storytelling, improvisation, teamwork, communication, diplomacy, compromise, and decision making.  As a parent, if someone was to tell me that my son or daughter could learn all of those skills while attending just one event, I would sign them up in a heartbeat. And how can any of those skills be seen as detrimental or a waste of time?

Now, to play devil's advocate, I do understand that bad apples exist in the roleplaying/D&D world and I'm certain that there are groups out there that take the game too far and into some very dark places. I can even imagine several scenarios where people may get physically hurt or suffer severe mental/emotional damage. As an advocate, academic, and active participant of D&D, I can only say this: If these people were not using roleplaying to manifest their negative actions, they would simply find another outlet. And who knows, maybe that alternative would result in something worse. It seems to be an unfortunate fact of life that any activity engaged in by thousands of people on a regular basis will eventually produce a scandal of some sort. It happens quite frequently in sports, in religion, and especially in politics, all three things we encourage our children to participate in without a second thought. So why should roleplaying be singled out?

In conclusion, D&D has definitely had its champions and its critics over the years. Some of those critics have been justified but the majority have manufactured their facts to serve ulterior motives. I personally chalk it up to growing pains. But I'm not so near sighted as to fully dismiss the idea that D&D, and roleplaying in general, cannot be dangerous. If I were to say that, I would be effectively saying that it has no real power to influence or change people and I know that's not true. It has tremendous power to influence and change people. But the fault lies not in the tool, it lies with the wielders. So, for those of you who are out there right now, running games, playing in games, or even learning games for the first time, I implore you to be responsible players. I implore you to not only be positive examples but to also have the courage to speak out against those who would be harmful to others. If we work together, we may just prove to the world that roleplaying isn't something to be afraid of, it is something to celebrate. If that is ever fully accomplished, then maybe in a few years when a mother and her two children walk through the door of my local gaming shop and are told that people are playing D&D, she can happily tell her kids to join in and go have fun.