I have a few new irons in the fire, so the frequency of posts is going to be more sporadic and the quality a bit less structured for the foreseeable future. I’m still gaming, and I plan to continue sharing my plans and learnings.
Category Archives: life meets game
Like many adolescent geeks, I fell in love with my first computer game back when I had lots of time and very little money. I mowed lawns for many weeks (probably around 12) to save up for Ultima IV: Quest for the Avatar to play on my Commodore 64. The game came on, I believe, four five inch floppy disks, and a nifty metal ankh and fabric map were included in the box along with two instruction books. I felt like I’d got my money’s worth.
The object of Ultima IV is to live well and in accordance with eight virtues: Honesty, Valor, Honor, Compassion, Justice, Spirituality and Humility. This leads to becoming the “Avatar” of those virtues and positioning your character as an example to the rest of the world. I was just impressionable enough to invest quite a lot of myself in the game’s core principles. I took it so far that I stopped reloading at previous save points, when I made a mistake and lost some rating in the virtues. A simple typo when dealing with a blind vendor would cause me to lose ‘an eighth’ of my avatar hood. One cannot be the avatar of honesty if one rips people off. It wasn’t a terrible hardship: even if you took a step backward, you could always redeem yourself, though this took hours. I probably added 50 hours of game play by compensating for typos provoked by an interface that I wouldn’t tolerate for ten minutes today.
After I completed the game, naturally I took my tricked out party back and slaughtered town after town. At that point even the town guards presented little challenge. After all those weeks spent tightly following a path of virtue, it was quite a relief to just go evil for awhile.
This reminds me of life in a long term Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I like playing and developing the same character over long periods of time, but sometimes it’s fun to change things up by creating a character who thinks a less and cares little for authority.
There are no two ways around it: I’m simply not as smart after I’ve had a drink as I am before. It’s more difficult for me to track details, to follow processes, remember small things and to be creative. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good beer and some bourbon as much (and maybe more) than the next guy. However, the facts are irrefutable at this point.
I noticed it most during a game of Robo Rally (a wonderful board game that you should play) last month. Normally, I’m pretty good at this game. My mind tends to compartmentalize information easily, and I can usually think pretty fast. Early in the game, I rushed out to an early, dominant appearing lead. Then I drank a beer. My little robot started rolling in random directions, and my lead dwindled to almost nothing.
Then the buzz wore off, my mind cleared and I won handily.
I am acutely aware of this limitation when running a Dungeons and Dragons game. Since I only DM about once a month, I don’t really have much experience, and there’s simply too much to track. I need to stay sharp. Normally, adding a drink makes almost every good thing a little better, but that isn’t true when I’m running a D&D game.
I usually ride my motorcycle to my weekly game, and I have a strict, self imposed, zero drinking and biking rule, so I don’t know if that applies as a D&D player. I do know that a cocktail or two goes just fine with most other board and card games. Flux and Munchkin are casual enough that a buzz doesn’t hurt game play, as is Ticket to Ride.
What do you think? When does alcohol add to your gaming experience, and when does it take something away?
In a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons, a group of players will sometimes coalesce into more than a group: as I (and others) have described, they will form, storm, norm and start performing as a team. Once a group has survived those early stages by aligning around a purpose and sorting out who is in charge, they can start playing at a very high level. This is when characters start synchronizing attacks, players have learned who knows the most about the skills rules, and the group – or rather, the team – has developed ways of resolving tactical disagreements.
D&D presents an interesting dynamic because often times, the players don’t feel like they’re on the same team as the dungeon master. Conventional player wisdom believes that the DM’s job is to create obstacles and challenges. He has a screen that hides die rolls and limits information. The group’s purpose is to overcome those challenges; the DM is their adversary, not their ally.
There is another way to think about these relationships: the purpose of the gaming group is not to overcome obstacles, the purpose is to create interesting stories and to craft a fun and satisfying play experience for everyone involved. While the player characters are certainly on different teams than the DM’s monsters, the players are on the same team as the dungeon master. We’re all in this together. We’re all trying to navigate the rules, have a good time and tell a good, exciting story together.
It’s much easier to resolve interpersonal conflicts after you begin with the premise that the DM and the players are on the same team. Should a DM make an encounter too difficult, it’s much easier to forgive him when you begin with the premise that you have the same primary goals. Naturally, the DM’s job is different from the players’, just as a baseball pitcher’s job is different from the first baseman’s and a striker’s is from a defender’s. That just means we have variety in the roles to play in our pursuit of challenge and fun.
I have two character concepts in the running. Last night I created a first level wizard gnome. My mind was crackling with the possibilities of a Yoda-like, active, arcane wielder. With my links to old school gaming, I want access to the powers from first edition: Mordenkainen’s Sword, Fireball etc… After I finished, however, I was less enthused: since my party already has two strikers, I shied away from Magic Missile and other focused damage powers. Instead, I picked mostly powers that obstruct monsters. At this point, I thought my decision was settled. My interest in the druid had faded and I was pondering paragon.
Then I had a moment of endorphin-clarity during my morning run. While I’m out running, I’m pretty disgusting. I spit when I feel like it, I blow snot at semi-regular intervals. I know these aren’t civilized behaviors, but I feel better when my fluids are flowing. No one enjoys a sniffly nose, especially during exercise. The clarity came when I considered basing a character on that behavior. It would work for any primal or otherwise uncivilized character. Like a switch, I was interested in the druid again. What if he had no concept of social norms, but with a heart of gold (or at least copper)? There’s a lot of juicy role-playing space there.
After I got home, I fired up the character builder and started on the druid. I must admit, from a design perspective, he might be more fun. I like the balance of close-up beast powers and longer range caster abilities.
By Thursday’s post, I should have a final decision. As usual, I’ll also chime in on Twitter with further developments.
Not long ago I came across the audio version of Jim Collins’ Good to Great. While the focus of the book is to understand the difference between truly great companies with great leadership and enduring growth from the merely good companies who’ve experienced brief periods of strength, many of its themes apply to any group of people assembled for a long term purpose. For example, great companies first assemble key leadership teams, then they decide what roles team members should hold and what the strategy of the company should be. This applies directly to gaming.
Games are often formed from a hodgepodge of available players. Perhaps someone posts an online ad, perhaps it’s an assembly of friends. Whatever the case, some attention should be paid to the type of player one invites to the table. In gaming it isn’t as crucial to assemble great people, after all, we’re all here to have fun. It is crucial, however, to assemble gamers of compatible temperament and style. One really bad player can spoil the entire group, just as two diametrically opposed players can. Ideally, the bad eggs and troublesome relationships should be identified before they’re allowed into the group. If someone already in the group consistently spoils the fun, it may be time to have that difficult conversation and disinvite them from the game.
The uncomfortable truth is that troubled players tend to hang around for too long because few people are willing to have that difficult conversation.
Once the right players are at the table, and the wrong players are away from the table, a group can decide what it wants to do a the table. While many dungeon masters do much of their campaign planning before they’ve gathered their players for the first time, there are hazards here. It’s better to adapt the campaign to the strengths and interests of the players. Similarly, it’s best to hold character creation until all the players are identified and can participate. Creating after the sharp minds have been assembled will lead to more interesting origins and sharper character builds. Most importantly, this should lead to increased fun of the entire group.
No one thinks he’s behaving poorly. The unfortunate truth is, at one time or another, all of us has behaved poorly. While there really is no concrete code of laws to govern behavior at the gaming table, there are some rules of polite society we should remember, and only break after thoughtful consideration. This is particularly true with new groups. As groups move through the forming and storming phases, and begin norming and performing, some of these rules will be irrelevant, while others will emerge.
1) Let the host know if you’re going to be late and don’t arrive excessively early. Often final preparations are being made during the hour or so before a gathering, and it can be a bit awkward for a host to have a guest to entertain while final preparations are being made. Fifteen minutes on either side is a good rule of thumb. If you are unexpectedly later than fifteen minutes, it’s polite to offer a brief, ‘Sorry I’m late’ to the rest of the group.
2) If there’s any doubt, ask before taking food or beverage that doesn’t belong to you. On the same note, don’t be afraid to ask: if someone brought food for all to share, it’s a burden for them to take it home at the end of the night. Naturally, remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you.’
3) Sharing works both ways. Bring chips and beer (or pretzels and soda or whatever…) yourself every once in awhile, even if it’s kind of a hassle. While it’s true that gamers tend to already haul a lot of stuff, and it’s difficult to carry one more thing, this does not absolve one from pitching in. Maybe that one time you drive is the opportunity to bring your share of the munchies for the next month or so. Just because someone is generous with their snacks doesn’t mean they enjoy feeding you or that you should expect them to. At the very least, he will appreciate when someone else pitches in occasionally.
4) Come prepared. If your characters have leveled in your absence, do the math ahead of time (especially for those 4th edition even levels). Bring a pencil and a set of dice. It’s also helpful if you review your notes or the session write-up from last time.
5) If you are the host, let everyone know how things work, and be prepared to gently remind them occasionally. Is your home a shoes off kind of place? Can folks help themselves to glasses for water, or would you prefer they use plastic cups?
6) If someone breaks a rule of polite society, don’t be a jerk about it. Time is at a premium for many gamers, and between work, kids, traffic and bus schedules, it can be harder than it seems to get to a game and be ready to go at the prescribed time. Be graceful.
What other rules of polite society should gamers remember? Do you have a questionable situation that you’d like input on?