Category Archives: Culture

Buzzed Gaming

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?

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For the Cat

“The first pancake is for the cat.”  I first heard this saying from a podcasting friend of mine as he described his initial production effort.  It was a new format for him, with a new team and new equipment.  While he wasn’t especially pleased with the outcome, he also wasn’t that disappointed or surprised.  The first pancake of the batch is never quite right, so you just plan it as a write it off.  Do cats even eat plain pancakes?  Bing and Google both failed to connect me with the original saying.

This sentiment holds true on both sides of the dungeon master’s screen in Dungeons and Dragons.  The most obvious example is in character creation.  Whether you use the DnD Insider’s Character Builder or stick with the books, there’s no way to really know how it’s going to come together until you play through an encounter or two.  Many powers have nuances that are easily overlooked; others work best in conjunction with the abilities of other characters or against certain monsters.  Sometimes things seem more fun on paper than in actual play.  For this reason, in my games it is common for new player characters to experience some retooling after their introduction.  Just last night I realized that my new druid’s magic staff’s item daily only works with arcane magic.

There are many analogous elements on the DMing side of things.  Describing environments, running encounters and negotiating the rules are skills that get better with use, and no one is as good at it initially as they will become with practice.  At the same time, most players are usually just happy to have someone DMing the game, just as cats are happy to get that first pancake.  This is what makes the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle so attractive.  Nothing is ever perfect at first, and almost everything has room for improvement.

With that in mind, it’s wise to focus on expanding a few skill sets at a time.  If you’re brand new to D&D, consider using a pre-published adventure initially.  When you start designing your own encounters, keep it relatively simple at first by limiting the number of different creature and terrain types.

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Who is on Your Team?

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.

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Creative Teamwork

I haven’t been gaming much lately, and I’m a smidge under the weather, so this will be brief.

When playing any role playing game, either as player or game-master, keep an eye out for bits of creativity from your fellow players that you can hook on to. If a group is going to create a world that feels developed and real, it will take all of your brains and all of you will need to participate. Otherwise, you may wind up with five completely separate and parallel stories surrounding your adventure. There are certainly worse things, but if you find ways to interweave your creative minds, you’ll find that it all hangs together in a more satisfactory way.

Along with the idea of hooking on to the stories of your other players, support your other players when they want to add content to a story that you’ve created.

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Some Considerations of Polite Society

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?

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