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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Sharing the Game: The Value of the Club

My Photograph

I did not belong to a D&D club.  When I started playing in/around 1981/82 there were most certainly such things in some places, but none in my places.  Like many other kids my age at that time, I played with the few friends I had that also played. Other times I somehow accidentally discovered new friends who played.  None of us was in a club. The thought of such a thing, I think, never crossed our minds. It seemed like the sort of thing that few people were doing, many people didn’t know about, understand or far worse, were afraid of.  It was fringe, as many of the best things were (and perhaps still are). There were no clubs.

I really, REALLY, wish there had been a club.

Last night I spent my evening at a camera club meeting that was rather unusual.  Our typical meetings revolve around competitive showings of our work, discussions of trips and photo-walks, maybe an exchange of ideas or techniques.  We often have guest judges or on occasion simply a guest speaker, but last night was something far more interesting, involving, enlightening, and special.  

The club, each year (and this is my first year as a member so it was a new experience for me) hosts an evening with the members of another local club of sorts, the Stetson Shutterbugs.  A very nice article appeared in about the club, which is worth a read.  Somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 kids from one of Philadelphia’s well known neighborhoods, though it isn’t well known for its positive qualities.  It’s easy to forget that while it can be a great city in many ways, it also suffers from many of the same problems that plague large cities across the country, and even the globe.  These were kids who come from a very tough neighborhood...a neighborhood not too unlike the one I work in every day at the pawnshop.

Xavier's Photograph

These kids showed their work, each standing up and walking over to our big screen and adding some information and context for their photos.  It was brave. It was interesting. It was wonderful. As each image flashed on the screen, an often tiny, meek, squeaky voice would chime in.  

“This is a photo of my grandfather.  I chopped off the top of his head accidentally, but I really like it,” said one young girl.

We commented on it.  The lines were nice and lead the eye to his eyes..  The image was clear and the composition was minimal, but there was some distracting items on the right of the image.

“This is a place I passed by while heading to the hospital with my mom for an appointment.  It’s a dangerous place where there are bad people and also drug abusers, who can’t always help it.  They go to rehab but them come out and come here to do their drugs again,” said a curly-haired boy.

It had great light and shadow.  The columns on the right were a nice leading line to the brightness at the far side of the image.  The trash on the ground added to the context.

“This picture I took while walking with my mom to the dollar store.  The umbrella is over the lady’s head and face, so I thought it looked cool.  We see her here sometimes. She’s homeless or crazy maybe. Once she shook a rock at me,” another girl informed us.

I had two thoughts banging around in my head.  The first was that these kids were taking great photos.  These were images unclouded and raw, emotionally open, and while not always crafted with the eye and hand of a seasoned master or professional (of which I am neither BTW...far from it) the images did what a good photo (or any art) should do in my opinion, which is share a visual moment that contains a story, emotional, visceral, intellectual...something is transmitted through the image to the viewer.  There were few photos, even before the child spoke about it, that didn’t evoke a particular thought or feeling from me.

The second thought was more of a question.  Just how important is a club like this, for children living in this place at this time?  Even if they do not carry on with photography as a lifelong pursuit on any level, how important is it right now to have a group of like-minded people and thoughtful teachers guiding these kids in this way, using photography as a creative vehicle?

What if there had been a club in my middle school for kids who wanted to play, or learn to play, D&D?

I was lucky, on many levels.  As for D&D, I found friends who played or were willing to learn.  Not having a club available didn’t stop me from playing, but how many kids who had an interest in the game were, i’m sure, not as lucky.  When I started gaming it was the time of the Satanic Panic that many of us know so well, but while I was aware of the issue it didn’t affect me.  How much easier would it have been for ostracized kids who wanted to play if their school offered a club to join, something official to legitimize and de-demonize a fun and creative hobby?

The kids I met last night were great.  They walked around taking photos of us, each other, and the event as it unfolded.  I know that if you put one of my street photos next to one of theirs, you wouldn’t know (or care) who made which.  Keep in mind that these kids were learning photography with pinhole cameras, old SLR’s, and black & white film.  Their guide and mentor wanted them to think about the photograph at the simplest level, and not worry about which setting, or what colors, or how to post-process the images they were making.  He wanted them to just slow down, see a scene, make a photo. It seemed to me the perfect approach to teaching, and the best way to learn. It is, BTW, completely the opposite way that I learned (and am still learning) to make a photo.  

If I was to start a D&D club, I would take the same approach.  Basic D&D. Simplify the learning process and find your place quickly, enjoy the game and don’t worry about rules and tables to complicate the character sheet.  The hardest part should be deciding on a name...then play.
What is more important, the game, or the sense of belonging?  The process, or the community? The group, or the art it creates?

The kids I met last night told us a story, showed us their art, and none of us left the gathering un-moved by our shared experience.

It was great to meet you, kids of Stetson Middle School. Thanks Tony Rocco, for your dedication and devotion to these and other kids who have come before, and will come after. I'm not sure if the enormity of what you do has been, or will ever be properly recognized, but it certainly has not gone unnoticed by this author/gamer/photographer.

Thanks to all of the organizers of clubs everywhere, of every kind.  Your contribution is important, and does not go unnoticed.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Friday After Report Returns!!!

Drink your Potion, and Prep your 6 Demon bag!

Welcome back to those who have blessed me with their eyeballs before, and also welcome newcomers!  Once again I’m back with some thoughts on gaming, as always energized and inspired to jot down my meager thoughts after a night of #ELITE B/X gaming with my internet friends…

Wait.  Internet friends?  Is that what they are, or have they simply become friends?  Yes, we met on the internet, but is that how I should classify folks I enjoy spending time with, even if we haven’t done so IRL?  It seems limiting and unnecessarily organized. Screw that.

Last night I had a super-fun time playing some B/X on Roll20 (not an endorsement) with my friends, and a hearty and heartfelt thanks you Kelly (twitter @oxfordgamer) for taking time from what I know is a busy schedule to run our somewhat motley crew directly into a trap, nearly killing us all.  It was the most fun I've had all week, and I certainly needed it.

Two things I wanted to cover in this (hopefully) short blog post.  

The first is DM preparedness.  It’s something I often take for granted, many times landing in the camp of ‘I’ve been doing this for so long that I can just plop my ass into a chair and run a game, as long as I have some source material in front of need for prolonged prep’.  Really, I’m fooling myself. Can I do what i think I can do? Yes. Can I do it as well as if I had taken even 1 or 2 hours out of my week to prepare some encounters, NPC’s, or a bit of a dungeon? Nope. No one can. Blanket statement. You might disagree, but you’re just bullshitting yoursel
Sometimes your Bench time is a good time to Plan
f into thinking you are far more awesome a DM than you actually are.  

There is no individual in any area of endeavor or activity that would not benefit from additional preparation.  I’m a firm believer in this. I may not always be a practitioner of this belief, but I know and feel it to be true.  If you are running a game and do so each and every week without a single moment of prep time, that’s fine. I’m not telling you how to run your game, because I know that everyone’s panties will ball up in a wad and get wedged up their asses if I do.  I am saying that if this is your particular ‘style’ of DMing, you’d be amazed at how much better your game will run if you add a bit of prep time to your practice.

Try it, don’t try it...I don’t really care.  I’m not in your game. I hope that by this time my opinions hold a small bit of water that you may find useful.  Your NPC’s will feel more 3 dimensional, the play will seem/be smoother and the moments of lag between scenes and interactions will diminish or disappear, leaving you with a game that hums along and adds to the enjoyment of all, and most certainly will reduce your stress levels.

In all honesty, after writing the above I’ve already forgotten what the second item was.  That should clue you in on the kind of week I’m having. It’s fine, I can always blog about it later, but I really should learn to outline before I begin writing.  Heh...prep.

If you are a gamer who is also into photography, I’d love to connect with you via Instagram or Flickr, or just simply have you visit my photo website or check out my podcast.  I’m not selling anything or pushing products through any affiliate links (nor do I plan to). I’m new to photography as a hobby and I’m enjoying it immensely, and so sharing it a bit with others seems a natural thing for me to do.  I’m always looking to make new photo-friends just like this blog has really helped me make some great new gaming-friends.

As always, be well….and Game on!


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Soundtrack of my Game, The Music of My Life

Childhood as I knew I felt it in the books, stories, music, and TV & Movies of my pre-teen years was coming to it's natural end, much like some sidewalks...

In or around the early part of 7th grade, in 1982, something in my world cracked wide open and all of the insanity of art popular, underground, mind-bending, and taboo flooded into my head like my own personal Pandora’s Box.  This was very close to the time I discovered D&D, all of those things happening in a 12 month stretch.

Let me clue you in on just a few of the things responsible for this violent evolution.  They didn’t all hit in 1982, but close enough to create the effect.

Magazines: Mad, National Lampoon, Heavy Metal, Playboy/Penthouse, Games

Books:  Anything Lovecraft, The Belgariad series, Elric Saga (and all of the Eternal Champions), Asimov, Bradbury, Niven, Zelazny, R.E. endless array

Movies: Alien, Annie Hall, Conan the Barbarian, Animation by Bakshi, THX 1138, The Dunwich Horror..again an endless array as VHS made everything available

Comedy: Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Rodney Dangerfield..

All of this and much, much more clearly created a good portion of the person (and the RPG player/enthusiast) I am today, but all of that together might not have had the collective impact that music brought to my life during that mid-pubescent moment.  I’m just going to drop a few youtube videos below.  No reason to listen or watch if you know what it is, and in no way is the individual song/album/group the ONLY reason for the was very clearly (to me) a collective impact.  

Sure, I had listened to the Beatles, the Stones, and the Doors by this point, but most of my musical exposure had been through my parents and the car radio.  Some of the more notable figures in my repertoire up to this point had been Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Gene Pitney, Bobby Vinton, John Denver, the Bee Gee’s and a collection of really awful popular disco or easy listening music (some of which, BTW, I not only still like, but Harry Chapin, and yes, I do enjoy a bit of Manilow now and again).  But while this music was fine, it wasn’t mind expanding or consciousness altering in any way.  It provoked little in the way of introspective thought.  

The music below was how I felt and what I heard in my head alot of the time, and how I imagined the soundtrack of my RPG playing would and should sound.

Yes: Everything Ever

Genesis: Most Everything, Ever

Crosby, Still, Nash and Sometimes Young: Yup..all of it

Rush: Every Drumbeat and Guitar lick…

The music could go on and on, and on, and on.  I had a Stereo, I had headphones, and I had my own room.  In essence I had the keys to the spaceship that could take me to infinite worlds of wonder, other planes of existence and all of it somehow, some-way, made its way into D&D.  Heroes, Wizards, Monsters, Demons, Devils, Magical Artifacts...all of them had a song or an album or a band.

I imagine that this experience is not unique, but the time and place of each individual determines the outcome.  Kids who grew up in the 90’s had access to music and technology (like video games) in ways I did not, so their perspective and more specifically, their soundtrack will be far different from mine.  Sure, Rap existed in the 80’s, but not in the same way it had become pervasive in the 90’s.  Cd’s replaced vinyl, and so their soundtracks didn’t have that big, amazing artwork my albums slid smoothly from.  MP3 format emerges, and now music can be shared and downloaded, even garage-band recordings can make their way around the world at the speed of light and change the musical landscape.

In the 2000’s and with the rise of the internet I can’t even begin to imagine what the soundtrack is like for a millenial.  I had such limited access comparatively.  We shared our albums and made mix tapes, we borrowed and shared our books and passed around magazines in school hallways or on the weekend at the mall.  Now kids just fire up spotify, instagram that meme, text a link, or snapchat that moment...personally i’m overwhelmed but I wasn’t born to it.  I do wonder what that person’s Soundtrack is like.  Is there any stability to it?  Does it feel rooted in anything tangible or real like paper or wax or plastic felt for me?  

All of this has one common thread...the game we play.  While it too went through changes and iterations over the decades (and some might argue changes to its soul as well) , I’m fairly certain that i’m not the only one who draws a straight line from the music that shaped their youth and the way they imagine the game plays out.Sure, there are bigger brush strokes here, but let's focus in and take a macro shot of this one thing.

What is the Soundtrack to your Game, and the music of your life?