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Friday, September 22, 2017

The Unexpected Miracle

A few days ago I wrote a post postulating about the most important factor in being a successful DM.  No fights broke out, but there were a few opposing opinions.  That's good.  That's what I want.  Discussion, dissension, deviation and diversity of thought are what makes our hobby so great.  They can also be its worst enemy, but that isn't this post.

Today I want to talk briefly about that thing that happens when you're so deep into your game, player or DM, that the world around you dissolves so completely that there is only the game.  For the player, there is only the character, the foe, the puzzle, the NPC, the monster.  For the DM, there is the entire game world.  For both, there is a foggy veil between the real world, and the story.  So intensely and completely have both parties come together around the table, that whatever the pressures of 'real life' have been up to that point they vanish in a blue and green swirl of sulfur-filled smoke, the deep chanting of the cult as they reply to the call of some ancient evil, and the fear of the unknown behind the curtain of darkness at the foot of the cave.

This is the Unexpected Miracle of Role Playing Games.

I was listening to Iberionex's podcast and the phrase was coined by Catherine Just, but as I heard and thought about it, I realized that it could apply to gaming or any creative pursuit.

She was talking about that moment, immediately or soon after a creative pursuit where the artist realizes that the work has produced something wonderful, a moment that has coalesced from hard work, technical skill, unusually good timing, and perhaps a few factors both unknown and not planned.  It seems to me that I am always searching for that in my role-playing experience.

It doesn't happen often.

Like Bruenor the master weapon smith, who may produce fine or even excellent work on a regular basis, his craft may yield an Aegis Fang only once.  Could he have produced weapons of equal or greater wonder?  Perhaps, but he got busy so we will never know.

What I find even more incredible about the Unexpected Miracle of role playing is that it only happens when the group has this gestalt.  If any of the players are busy on a phone, if the DM is more focused  on his interests than those of the players, than the moment where it all comes together and will be remembered long after is gone.  Poof!

Many of us, if not most, have stories about exciting, amazing times around the table.  Perhaps we have more than a few.  We also have legends.  There are moments in our personal gaming history where all things around us dissolved, when the swords clashed or the spells burned and a great moment is encapsulated in a sphere of Time Stop woven with Permanence to create what I believe is  the true art, the penultimate realization of the role playing hobby.

It cannot be forced.  It cannot be 'decided upon'.  The Unexpected Miracle simply occurs.

Has this happened for you?  Will it?

Game on.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Signs and Portents of the Best DM's

I get asked all the time, "Hey Goblin_Stomper, "how can I be a better DM?"

That's not true, no one ever asks me that.

It's my personal opinion that most DM's think they do a fine job, most probably do, and some are great.  Most I think are fine, that is, good enough that players come back to play another game, and that's really the best review a DM can get.

After all this time, I think I can distill most of the behaviors of a really good (perhaps great) DM down to just a few, but if you asked me what the most important one is, that's easy.  There is one trademark of a DM who will keep you coming back to the table.  The sign of a DM able to keep your mind entrenched in the mind of the character you've created, and allow the world around you to melt quickly away, leaving you and your character completely immersed in hours of play that feel like mere moments.

The best DM's believe, with complete authority and utter certainty  without wavering once, that their world and the game are as real as the screen on which you read this sentence.

That's it.  That's all there is to it.

This Guy Believes.  He really does.

Oh sure, there's the importance of being familiar enough with your ruleset to suffer no fools or lawyers.  It's a given that you understand the basic elements of storytelling so deeply that your game follows both a predictable, yet surprising pattern to keep the players engaged but not bored.

It's your belief in you world, however, that I perceive as the lynch-pin to your success as a DM, even if you lack some or even all of those other factors.  Sure, you can't 100% fake that other stuff.  You will need it, but first, believe.

You see if you don't think that your gods exist, that your sorcerer can cast a glamour of never-before-seen magnitude, and that your monster is an engine of raw, destructive power as it defends it's well earned treasure hoard...who will?

You, the DM, need to live in your world first, and most deeply.  If you don't do this, the task of casting the spell of suspension of disbelief at your table will fizzle from the fingers that weave it and the mouth that casts it.  There are a few helpful hints for this, but mostly, you just gotta believe.  I will list a few important things here, but these are just guideposts. 

1. Write a brief outline of your world. Include your gods, rules for magic, important localities as well as unique locations important to where you'd like to begin your game/story.  Design a framework for your mind to dilly-dally, play, jaunt.

2. Create your first Inn.  Maybe it seems crazy to go from the macro to micro, but here you can develop a few personalities, a few names, a few drinks...get a sense of how your world 'feels' to you, and hone it until you know the inn and its occupants like they're family.

3. Create your own PC for the world.  If you were playing in your world, what sort of character appeals to you.

3a.  Give that PC a backstory.

Now...there will be some amount of time between the birth of your game/world and your first game, so now you gotta split off a small piece of your day-to-day brain, and place it in that world (or place that world in it).  Sometimes you should try to actively daydream a bit in the world.  Other times let that part of your mind fly solo.  Don't lose your job over this.  Don't forget to study for exams.  Just give it a bit attention now and again, to reflect on it, fine tune it, and keep it flourishing.

Maybe keep a notepad.  I like a tiny, ruled Rhodia and a fine gel pen, but anything you can keep on you will work fine.

That's my advice, mostly short and pretty sweet.

Now go play.  Believe.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Pace of the Game

I think alot about time.  In a world, and at an age, where I seem to have less of it in every way I consider it more and more.  Much of what I had is now gone, left behind me like an invisible path of memories and experiences that mixes and mingles and certainly crosses the paths of many others.  In a world that is so very focused on the now, on the future, and on speed I know that I prefer things slowed down.  I would not stop the steady, heavy march of time even if I could, but I do my best to remove myself when I can from its speedy yoke.

Roleplaying is an activity that by its very nature requires us to sit down, think, talk together, and slow down.  It is a game that should not be played in short bursts, like so much Snake on the toilet.  Instead, we organize relatively long periods of time to it.  There is preparation on the part of the DM, time where one of the group must focus attention on the plot and action, and consider carefully the party and the story.  It is is his or her own fate the DM considers, wrapped up in the lives and behavior of the NPCS, the Monsters, the antagonists, and even the dungeon itself however or in whatever form that place/space manifests itself.

Then we meet and sit.  There are unwritten customs in our groups, some common to all and others much more specific, but most somewhat ritualistic.  How many of us first share our food and drink?  Which of us places our dice just so at our place at the table and rolls them a few times, trying to eek out some insight as to their behavior?  While we wait for others to arrive don't we all discuss our lives, our weeks, our work, our families, and then ultimately...the game, our characters, the previous session?  We take our time.  Patience is a given.  We wait for all, or as a group decide to forge ahead.  Yes, we have some time, but not all the time.

As the game begins, and the story and its events unfold before the players and their characters, the individual and the group must act and react but there is time to consider, even in the most heated of battles.  The combat can feel quick, but there is that feeling of the slowing of time, even if such a thing isn't truly possible.  It is this perceived manipulation of time that I crave, the feeling that things are taking forever until finally I look at my watch or a clock and see that hours have flown by as we, as I, was immersed in the play.

If you've been reading my blog recently, you'll know that I've come heavily under the influence of photography.  It is a hobby that requires time to master the technical skill required to take a photo, time to find a location in which to shoot, time to set up and frame the picture, time and patience to wait for something to happen within that frame, and finally time to process and review the photograph.  It is a practice indelibly enmeshed with time so much so that the finished photograph is, in reality, the art of capturing a moment of time.

The younger players who read this may not yet feel the pressure of time.  I know that when I was happily getting lost in adventures over the course of a weekend with friends, I paid time no mind.  Food was more important, and sleep only came when we were all at the point of exhaustion.  There is no reason to consider these games as lost or stolen time.  Legends were made, empires were built and then crumbled, and a good time was had by all as the seconds, minutes, hours, and yes even days were eaten, moment by moment, by the game we love.

These days I am luck to be able to spare three of four hours to devote to my gaming group.  It is a chunk of time happily set aside so that there can be legends, and heroes, and empires rising and falling.

Whatever your game, regardless of age, take note that you have chosen to slow down time.  You have chosen to break from the pack, those clamoring for more, now, faster and instead have chosen to chill, relax, breathe, think, create, play...pretend.

...and remember that these are the moments that make us human.  Time is a finite resource for each person, the thief whom even the guildmaster can not swindle.  Time is like the stories we tell and the game we play, without beginning or end.  The magic of time is best felt when we share it with others.

Go Play.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Learning How to Play Tabletop RPG's

I've been playing and DMing RPG's since 1980 or so.  Anyone who grew up playing in that era, regardless of the game or hybrid mix of systems they played, learned how to do so in one of only two ways.  The first, and most common way was to play.  Simple.  You knew some folks who played and asked them if you could join.  Then someone (the DM most likely) would show you how to roll up a PC and you joined in the fun.  Total ignorance and confusion quickly turned to understanding. It was usually a whole bunch of fun as you watched what the other folks around you were doing, and when it came to your turn, you followed suit.

Then your PC died.

It's cool, cause you just rolled another, better guy and started again.  Easy Peasy.

The only other way to learn to play/DM was to read the manuals.  This method was sketchy at best, but I guess the lone individual, first of his kind to emerge, must have had no other choice.  He would then find some willing friend to bite at the hook and become his first player.  Together they would muddle their way through and play, maybe mostly wrong, but that really didn't matter.  Point is, they played.  They had some fun.  Eventually they connected with a few other guys who had done the same thing, they hammered out what each group was likely doing wrong and right, and a consensus formed they would play at the next level.  Such was the evolution of D&D where I'm from, and it's probably not too dissimilar from your experience, again assuming you are of a certain age.

I bring this up because we don't live in 1980 anymore, and we are not the diaspora as that time before the internet forced us to be.  These days, and with the help of our advanced communication systems, we are able not only to quickly locate others of our kind and come together at the local Coffebucks to decide if we'd like to play D&D together, but those of us still stuck in remote areas where people are few and comrades far fewer can still learn to play.  Websites, Forums, and best of all Videos can quickly bring us up to speed on how the game is played.

Of course, there is no 'right' way to play.  The internet has also allowed us to debate endlessly over methods of play, styles of play, and the minutiae of the rules that we use to play.  While this may seem confusing to the uninitiated, anyone with an iota of sense and their own copy of the ruleset they desire to use can filter out the needed information from the noise and nonsense of gamer flub-dubbery.

Me?  I'm at a high level of expertise.  I am a great player, I am an awesome DM, and I am a superb flinger of flub-dubbery.  I could teach anyone to play, were I to choose to do so.  Thankfully many such people are running websites,  hosting forums, and best of all creating videos from how-to to actual gameplay.  I don't watch them, but I appreciate their value to folks new to the hobby who have no local, experienced source to turn to.  There's Matt, who has a bunch of videos I've never watched but he seems smart and intense and passionate, so you can watch his stuff.  Then there's Critical Role with Matt (different Matt.  Lot's of Matts in RPGs) if you'd like to watch people play the game in real time.  If you prefer reading to watching, just google 'How to Play D&D' and then tumble down the rabbit hole.  This last method is a good one if you have alot of time, a case of Jolt, and a multi-monitor setup for all the tabs you're about to open.

I am not a great photographer.  Probably i'm not even very good.

This is what started me down this rambling path of thought today.  I exist alone here in my cave with my cameras.  I was barely able to take a decent picture with my phone, which as we all know even toddlers can achieve with little or no instruction.

The internet has quickly allowed me to access the technical knowledge I need to use my gear.  Beyond basic usage, I was able to review the recent history of photography, the types of photography, the reasons to operate the camera in a certain way given a particular environment or subject, and watch people in real-time taking photos with the gear I owned in all types of situations and places of interest.

I may not be a good photographer yet, but now I can use my camera.  The personalities I follow online who teach photography have been great, and I've learned a great deal about the art and technology of taking good photographs.  In essence, I've learned how to play, and now the only way to advance my skills is to go out and take photos.

What I'm getting at, I think, is that it's great to use the internet to learn how to do something, but in the end you've got to get out there and do it!  Go play!  Find a game store with a weekly game, join a group using the Meetups app, use craigslist or reddit to find an IRL or online game to play.  Put the internet to good use!

Go Play.  Have fun.  Make memories.

My Friend Dean, Jamming with his Reggae Band Jah People

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The RPG as a Collectible : A Misspent Youth

These days it's not uncommon, certainly if you hang out on Twitter, Facebook, or G+, to see folks posting proudly their shelves crammed full of RPG's new and old.  It's nice to share, or in some cases show off a long curated and well maintained collection of gaming books, supplements, maps, dice, miniatures and such.  Back in the 1980's I would buy anything and everything related to the hobby.  Most of the TSR library was at my disposal.  I really enjoy looking at these shelf shots, especially when I recognize a rare book (or edition of a book) I once had.

Yup.  I said had.

I can't share a shelfie, the fun nickname given to a glamour shot of one's own shelf(ves) full of gaming goodness, because back in the early 1990's I decided to relocate from my then home in Houston, TX. to my now (and original) home town of Philadelphia PA.  I was taking myself, my dad, my clothes, and a few carefully selected items in a small Ford LTD the approx 1700 miles to live once again in the land of my birth.  My rather extensive RPG collection, I had decided, would not be making the trip with me.

I needed cash to finance my trip and help me get a start once I arrived, and so I boxed up my collection of D&D, AD&D, Palladium, WFRP, and a multitude of other books and I sold the lot.  I added a few dollars (what now would seem like a crime given ebay pricing for these same items) to my bank and took off to my new life.  When it was over, I didn't feel unburdened, I felt sad and a little bit ashamed that I had sold my collection both cheaply and without too much forethought.  There were loads of books, gaming as well as fiction and non-fiction, that got packed into boxes and sold off.  Other things got the chop as well, but nothing stung so quickly or deeply as the sale of those books, specifically my RPG's.  The early 90's was a bit of a dead-zone for tabletop role-playing.  Those of you experiencing and enjoying its renaissance now may not have any connection to that time, but folks who have slogged through, guys (and maybe some gals) of a certain age will most assuredly remember them.  With my move imminent, and my future in the hobby uncertain, I made the rash and in retrospect incorrect decision to take the quick cash.  So much for hindsight.

Now here I am, some 20-odd years later, staring at the shelf that could have just as easily been my own.

It makes feelings happen.  Initially I get excited to see a familiar face, the 1e PHB or a well creased Unearthed Arcana.  Rather quickly, however, those emotions turn quickly to loss, sadness, an absence deep in the pit of my stomach (soul) that I am missing a piece of my life that I should be able to turn to, an old friend not dead, but long ago having moved on to some other life of which I am no longer a part.

Can I fix the situation?  Of course.  Just like most folks I have access to ebay, and if I wanted my spare income to to go rebuilding my old gaming library I could certainly allocate those funds.  Many people have done, or are currently doing this.  Like many folks currently in a state of 'adulting', I have other priorities, and many new interests as well, so my money does not go to rebuilding that bookshelf.  I must content myself by living vicariously through others, and the ever-growing image archives 

Do I have access to these magical tomes of my youth?  Sure.  The internet also facilitates that.  Grabbing the occasional pdf from the darker side of the interweb is simple enough.  Is it the same, owning a pdf of the 1e PHB?  Nope, not by a long shot.  Sure the information is there, but it is soulless.  Empty.  Devoid of any feeling.  Like most things we (humans) collect, simply having what amounts to a 'picture' of a thing is not the same as owning/holding that very same thing, even if what that image conveys is in large part the same as the thing itself.

These days much of my free, non-gaming time is spent with my camera(s).  I love shooting candids of folks in the streets, and of particular interest to me is outdoor markets, garage sales, and flea markets.  That's not, I suspect, a coincidence.  I'm always on the lookout for two things...Old cameras/lenses, and RPG material.  Ebay has made locating old gaming materials and old camera gear a real challenge, but it's part of what makes spending my time perusing and capturing moments at these places so enjoyable.

Thanks to all of those collectors, new and old, who are sharing their pride & joy images with the rest of us.  No matter my own feelings about it, it's nice to see so many others having and enjoying their collections with all of us in the RPG community.

I haven't moved on from gaming.  Not hardly.

Much of my RPG time is spent on using Fantasy Grounds 2, so the need for books in my hand during online play isn't all that important.  For those rare times when I get to play F2F, I rely on the kindness of my companions, which has never failed and I'm sure never will.  (I got dice, no worries there.  A man should have his own dice...I guess you could share, but that's kinda weird)

In the meantime, if you happen to have a second set of any of those 1e, first or second printing tomes...I'd be happy to make a space on my shelf for them.  You can rest assured they would be both cared for and cherished, and hopefully used at the table.

Game On Guys!

Friday, September 1, 2017

How Harvey Could Not Split the Party

I guess that it should come to no ones surprise that as the hurricane named Harvey loomed ever closer to the Texas coastline, and as my family who live in/around Houston began to prepare for the potential onslaught that may come by stockpiling water, dry goods, and all of the fixin's for french toast, that in the back of my mind my little lizard brain all full of lessons hard won and learned during countless years and endless sessions began to whisper one quiet, recurring thought.

Don't split the party.

My father moved us to Houston in the summer of 1986.  Like many folks before him, he was lured to Houston by a job.  He was, and to my mind still is, a furrier.  Neiman-Marcus had need of his skills, and in a business dying off as a middle-class luxury he followed the money and took us all with him.  I was 16, my sister 14 and my brother was 5 when we left Philadelphia and headed south into the unknown.

They are all still there, my family.  In the mid-90's I moved back home, to Philly, but that is another story.  Suffice it to say that it was me, initially, who split the party.

My siblings are grown now, and they all have their own families, their own jobs, lives, and homes around the Houston area.  My folks settled finally in Richmond, TX., a small suburb-town a few miles southwest of the Houston metroplex (an atrocious yet appropriate word) near the Brazos River.  My sister lives a mile or so from them, my brother in a northern suburb about 45 minutes away.  They split the party as well, but my move was the greatest in terms of physical distance.  We are a close family, as families these days go. We have our moments, but we are a true party.

My father, ever the Fighter/Cleric, a combat medic in Vietnam before wife and kids and furrier were ever born.  My mother a cleric as well, though not clinging so tightly to her faith as to her family.  My sister, like my father, a Fighter.  Not the sharpest sword in the sheath but tenacious, and when confronted, outright deadly.  Her Con and Str are high.  She can dual wield, and her reaction time gives her many pluses to init.  My brother the quiet Cavalier.  No specialist, but a bright and shining generalist, ever ready to help with a hand.  Loyal and trustworthy, a better friend likely none have ever had.

Me?  Always the Magic-user/Thief...but maybe you already knew that.

Together we had managed to overcome many foes, monsters, traps, dungeons...rarely gold at the end of any adventure, but always the company.  Always the family.

As I watched from the couch last weekend, the rain and wind battering first Corpus, and then moving up the coastline until at last the full-force of this horrible weather event struck at the heart of Houston, I had never before felt so helpless.  My parents, sibling, and my surviving grandparents were all huddled in their homes, often sheltering in place as tornado warnings began to appear.  My sister sending regular updates from her house as her family sat in the bathroom near the tub.  The news on the TV getting worse and worse, and the real issue, that each of my comrades was stuck in place.  As I sat glued to the TV, I reached for my Dagger and my Wand, but neither would be of any use from where I sat, 1000 plus miles from the hurricane.

The party had been split.

Enough drama.  You know what happened.  Either you are/were there and you're dealing with the aftermath or you watched TV and saw the images of folks needing rescue by boat or by helicopter, looked on as the city prepared shelters for the newly homeless.

My family, all of them, were incredibly lucky.  While those around them lost hearth and home, the wisdom of my father kept them all safe.  He had always made one rule about buying or renting a home in Houston.  My dad knew that we were close to sea level, and near the coast, and he insisted that my siblings live on the highest ground they could find.  Often not good at listening, his kids knew this time he was right, and so my brother and sister purchased homes on hills in a land were there were few.

They were lucky, but it was a close call.  Water was inches from each of their doors.  Many neighbors, even on adjacent streets quickly became flood victims.  I feel awful for everyone affected by this terrible storm.  It was never far from my thoughts that I should be there with them, that if I was nearby I would have somehow been able to help if something terrible had come for them.  It was never clearer to me that the D&D party is nothing more than the fictional representation of a family.  The not-so-real trials and tribulations, the adventures we share at the gaming table are all metaphor for the real world, and if we are lucky then the comrades who sit at the gaming table with us, these folks are our family members.

Even with distance between them, my father had managed not to split the party.

To those of you affected by this storm, I say Don't Split the Party! Cling tightly to those who you care for and who care for you, and together help those around you.  Be generous with what you have, care for your neighbors (your extended party, as so many of my parents' neighbors were with them) and even with strangers in need.  This is not, nor shall it ever be, a country divided by color, creed, or politics...and no storm, no matter how large or devastating, will sunder what we as a nation have wrought.

For the folks like me, with friends and family caught up in the aftermath of Harvey, I understand how you feel and know that you have not abandoned your party.  They know that you would be there to help if you were able.  Your comrades know that you are now, and ever will be, a member of the party.

Stay strong Houston.  You've got this.