Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Back when I used to play Basic"

Level 0: In 4th grade, during inside recess in snow-bound Erie, Pa., my friend brought out a maze drawn on a sheet of graph paper, pinned to the top of a cardboard box and explained that it was a game. Some of my other friends were familiar with the game. I was not, but I had made my own games before and appreciated that we weren’t just moving tokens in a line trying to get to the end. Besides that it was baffling. I did not understand that my friend had any special “DM” role beyond just being the guy who’d played before and knew the rules. I remember enough to know I played a cleric.

Dave Super: Skeletons! Ok, do you want to turn them?
Brian Cooper: Turn them into what?
Eric Buch: Just say yes.
BC: Ok, I’ll turn them—
DS: You’ll turn them? Ok . . . (Rolls dice.) you can’t turn them.

Level 1: I got the Moldvay B & X sets at my 11th birthday sleep-over and Eric Buch DMed. (Dave Super was not invited.) I had a understanding that D&D somehow let you be a wizard or a dwarf or a hobbit. For me, a wizard was the obvious choice because, you know I was smart and wizards were smart. (This sense of prime requisite must have predated D&D but I’m not sure how.) In my own mind, and sometimes out loud, I had been styling myself Racoop the Red when I played in the woods and he was my first character. Again, the experience was baffling, in some ways disappointing, maybe even chillingly disappointing. It was, I admitted to myself when I went upstairs (for pencils?) a luck game more like “SORRY!” than chess or stratego or dinosaur island. And the scenario—involving the kobolds lair in the caves of chaos—was about as heroic as digging through someone else's trash.

There's nothing wrong with you by Brayo
There's nothing wrong with you, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

Level 2: Despite all that, I wanted to “do it” again. The mystery of figuring out how all the pieces went together was compelling. And maybe I sensed that Eric Buch was too self-conscious about it to actually do it right, and that it would be more fun if the DM didn’t refer to your wizard by the wrong color. Figuring out how to roll up a character the right way (rather than having Eric make up your scores) was really interesting. Concerns about luck weren’t there because I understood already, that everyone is different and is born with different things that they’re good at.

Level 3: My friends (minus Eric Buch, who lived in another neighborhood and was starting to move in higher circles) started playing frequently, often beginning by rolling characters and then proceeding to the Caves of Chaos to kill the same monsters that we’d killed the day before. Nowadays, there’s talk of how D&D has been ruined by video game mentality and to a degree I see that. But we were playing D&D in much the same way that we played Atari. Every time you turn on Space Invaders, you get the same first screen. And when you clear that screen, you move onto the same next screen.

Level 4: As an expert, you understand the importance of not only character continuity but character development. And you learn that there is a whole world beyond the Cave of Chaos. Level progression is one of the great innovations of D&D and it has the weird effect on anyone who has played at all seriously of mingling your own dreams about the future with those of your character. Or maybe ambitions for your character supersede your own. In 6th grade, I did not think about being a lawyer or a scientist or an athlete or a writer. I did think a lot about what my character would be able to do when he hit 9th level.
Or, maybe I was practicing being a writer and a lawyer. Unlike my friends whose parents bought them shrink-wrapped modules, I started writing my own (yes I was jealous). And, in the process, of designing an adventure, I started really mastering the rules, and how to apply them.

Level 3: There was a wight or wraith who lived in the neighbor, a high schooler with a Chaotic Neutral thief who chewed tobacco while he ran games in his basement. He had some high school friends, too, but he began luring my players away or, worse, corrupting them. It had never occurred to me to give people max. hit points (at every level, the munchkin). And it had never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with an evil three-headed lion that when you killed it turned into a golden statue that could turn into a normal, good lion that would be your friend and fight with you.

Level 4: For Christmas and my birthday in 6th grade (Was it really just a year since that birthday sleep-over?), I got the PHB and the DMG. I started playing at school with maybe the first DM I really respected (respected as a DM I mean. Chris MacGregor, you were a great friend). He maintained that proper wall between DM and players (no DMPCs) without being obnoxious (again, no DMPCs). At the end of 6th grade, my family moved to Georgia. It would take a long time to reach 5th . . .

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NDT 17: Above Foamfire Falls

Trekking up the ravine, and following the Foam Fire River toward the falls, we heard the storm gathering behind us: drums, war cries, hundreds of stamping feet, the half-disciplned cadence of the gnoll horde. We cast aside the tapestry, covered ourselves with the magic invisibility powder and doubled our own pace until we reached the falls. There, we found a doorway carved into the rock, the dedicated work of a more long-sighted time. In crossing the river to reach the door, magic powder was washed off us by the the mist in the air, and our enemies, too, began to reach the pool. They saw us, washed of the powder and we saw them, washed of the cheap bravado of bloodlust. The sight of a expertly-carved stone and those who carry light into darkness left them awe-struck and we entered the halls under the mountain unharassed. We climbed up a stone staircase to the bridge and tower that spanned the top of the floors. Below, the impotent horde japed and howled-- but did nothing.

Great Falls! by Brayo
Great Falls!, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


If you've ever driven by a building site and thought that there seemed to be a lot of standing around as opposed to actual ditch-digging or what-have-you, it might be that the supposedly idle workers are on the lookout for advancing hordes of bloodthirsty frog cultists. Such watchfulness saved the lives of a team of laborers from Hommlet and the neighboring hamlet of Waledge who had gone to to clean up the river in the vicinity of the old moathouse. Gunthar, along with several militia members perished while protecting the laborers flight back to Hommlet.

the Moathouse by Brayo
the Moathouse, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

NDT 16: wasting time in a dumpy fishing village outside an overgrown logging town

Resolved: What makes D&D awesome is that sometimes it's not awesome at all.

In our last Night's Dark Terror Session, the party arrived in Threshold, a walled logging town and jumping-off-point for expeditions into the mountains. Because of an attack by members of the Iron Ring while we were in Kelvin, we were cautious about how we should enter and argued about how to enter without attracting too much attention-- especially because of the dwarf. We decided that Martin should cast an illusion to make Olamris look like a human-- like a dressed-down version of Golthar (the weird wizard with the dragon bone bed) in particular. The guard was friendly but wanted us to give up our weapons. Pavel, hoping to cut the conversation short, asked the guard about his religious beliefs, but to no avail, and then Martin lost concentration on his illusion.

Who likes towns anyway? Not Pavel.

So we went to the little fishing village outside Threshold and found an inn there. We ate fish and we talked to Mischca, a crazy old lady with a crazy old cat who told us stories about the giants who live in the mountains and the lost valley beyond the firefoam waterfall. Or something. And on the one hand, I think all the players were wondering, "What are we doing? I could talk to a crazy old lady on my own time." But for me, at least, it was really great. It's the prosaic details that help distinguish D&D from pokemon.

fish by Brayo
fish, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

The Block Game

Stuffed animals like kids. And kids like games. Here is a great game to play with kids.

I have a nice set of blocks—the Japanisches Haus from HABA’s Master Builder series. Unlike some of the other sets in the series, such as the Pyramid, many of the pieces have a distinct, in this case Asian, look about them, but you can put them together any way you want. That’s the only required trait for blocks used with this game—adaptability.

Besides blocks, you need a dice. Six-sided is probably best, although d8 can work.

And you need players. At least 2 and as many more as you can fit round your building area.

1. Roll the dice
2. Choose that many blocks and build something with them
3. Play passes to next player who rolls and adds blocks to the existing structure
4. Keep going until all the blocks are gone.
5. Add rubber lizard, take pictures, knock down, etc.
IMG_2246 by Brayo
IMG_2246, a photo by Brayo on Flickr.

For me, this is much more engaging then just playing with blocks—in ways that suggest what I (and maybe other people) like about games in general.

There is an understated competitive element. Resources are limited and one of the other
players may get the block you want. Also, whatever vision you have for the overall structure will be “compromised” by the other players. On the other hand, if you do something that another player likes (for example, one in a series of arches), that player will likely follow your design on their turn.

It’s co-operative. This is more obvious than the competitive element, since you are all
working on the same structure. But beyond that, by following the rules (turn-taking, dice-rolling, adding blocks, but not taking them away) all players reinforce the sense of structure that governs
the project.

It creates two structures and structure creates comfort. Like I just said, there is the building and
there are the rules—both are a structure. Unlike two or more people just “sharing” blocks, there is no hitting or biting. Also there’s no hoarding. Some disappointment is to be expected. But it’s easier to accept because there’s no need to fight to protect what you think you deserve. Once you’ve built something, you know it cannot be taken away.

It alters one’s perception of time. Really. Time is marked by the turn. When
it’s your turn, there’s nothing rushing you, because nothing else can happen at
the same time that you are happening. And this is a very nice feeling.

It’s random. What’s the point of the dice? Why not let people take turns placing say three or four or whatever number of blocks on their turn. I haven’t tried it but it sounds less fun. It’s great when you roll a big number and can really do something major. But the lower number rolls result in more collaboration rather than a collection of semi-autonomous structures. Adapting to an unexpected situation is fun. When I roll a 1, I’ll choose one of the trees or another very distinct piece and place it somewhere that seems significant—either in a central place of prominence or, paradoxically, somewhere set off from the main structure.

It’s interactive.
Again, unlike “sharing” blocks, you really are building something together and responding to what each other does. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t tell someone else where to place their blocks. At least not with words. The blocks themselves become a medium of communication.