Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Power of Passion

When I was a kid, I was in Forensics Club. It's like Track & Field but for geeks; a bunch of different events, you choose your event, you compete against other students, blah blah blah. My category was informative speech. My speech was on thrill-seeking as a sport. This was the 90's; bungee jumping was all the rage, Point Break was a box office hit, and I thought it was all totally rad.

In the one meet I did, I had three opponents. One did her speech on bats. Another on nuclear energy. Another on the Titanic. All three of them had posterboards and slides. All three of them had memorized every word of their speeches and recited them like trained dogs, complete with putting their head down and closing their eyes when the speech was done. All three of them were in formal attire, ties and all.

I didn't get the memo. I didn't make a single poster or chart or anything. I was in jeans and a t-shirt. I hadn't even memorized my speech; I read it off index cards. I rehearsed it once, in front of the teacher, two hours before the competition. I was mortified as I watched their polished, perfected presentations through three rounds of competition and then I, who looked and acted like I had just wandered into the wrong room, stood before an adult judge and bumbled my way through a speech about skydiving.

Finally, at the end of the evening, the winners for each event were announced. When it was time for the informative speech event, I was so embarrassed I barely could handle standing on stage while they announced the winner, who would definitely not be me.

Except it was. Not only did I win, I was the only participant in the entire meet who scored perfect 10's in all three rounds of competition.

I was stunned. I could not for the life of me figure out how this happened. Did they take pity on me? Did they think I had some kind of developmental disorder or something? The judges gave me their scoring sheets and I desperately looked for an explanation.

What I found written repeatedly on all three sheets were "This is so cool!" "You are so excited by your topic, and it's infectious!" "You clearly cared about your topic and explained WHY to me!" "It was so much fun seeing you burst about bungee jumping!" "I loved Point Break, too!"

It's funny; when you're young, you learn these lessons, and they never leave you. No matter what the logic is, no matter how times change, sometimes you learn something as a kid that goes on to define almost everything you do. Here's what I learned that day: nothing matters except passion. If doing something takes away from the passion, then it's not helping, it's hindering. I understand now what I didn't back then: those other three kids, they choose topics that they thought they could sell to the judges. They stressed and obsessed about their visual aids and their attire. They didn't worry about the right thing: whether or not they actually gave a damn about bats, or the sinking of the Titanic (that third kid did care about nuclear energy, though. A lot. He went into pretty gross detail on what nuclear radiation can do to a human body. I think that might have actually been his big problem).

I was going to tie all this back into role-playing, but I kind of forgot what my point was, so I'll let you, Dear Reader, figure out why you just read this.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Three Pillars

In Dungeons & Dragons, the whole design philosophy of fifth edition has been placed upon three pillars: exploration, social interaction, and combat. In a similar fashion, my very life is now balanced upon three pillars: Gaming, work, and drinking.

With exploration, D&D talks about maps, encounters, and travel to foreign lands. With gaming, I get distance from life's shit through escapism (chiefly through videogames), a creative outlet in role-playing games, and a means of interacting with people on a safe and confident level, through RPGs or boardgames.

With social interaction, D&D highlights role-playing, the value of NPCs, and being able to do in general non-combat-y interpersonal things, like interrogating people or conning their way past guards. With my work, I have a stable institution that supports my lifestyle, a place to hone and practice my skills in writing and editing, and a social/interpersonal outlet that isn't strictly revolving around the other two pillars.

And combat, of course, is D&D's bread and butter, where the action is, what the game is probably most famous (or infamous) for. All the numbers and planning and character development gets ultimately challenged and tested in D&D's combat encounters. With drinking, I have my wild card; a little liquid courage that allows me to reach out, connect with people I wouldn't normally connect with, and be vulnerable when I'd otherwise be closed off. It's scary, even a little dangerous...but so is combat in D&D, amiright?

D&D is at its best when adventures, characters, and campaigns are balanced on those three pillars. My life, I think, is the same. I'm at my happiest when I'm playing good games with good people (or alone, sometimes), when I'm productive and a part of the team at work, and when I'm having good laughs and connecting with friends while I drink.

But that's not where I'm at, completely, right now. My life is in a little bit of flux at the moment. Like an adventure with too much combat, I've been drinking a bit too much lately. I want to control that. And, just like a D&D adventure, when one side gets out of balance, you re-balance amongst the other two pillars. As I ramp down my drinking, I must step up my game at work and throw myself harder into my gaming to compensate.






Thursday, September 10, 2015

Oh, the Irony...

...a game about zombies is consuming my brain.

A couple of months ago, I made some very heavy RPG commitments in an effort to keep myself busy and happy. I had a Trail of Cthulhu game every other Sunday, a Shadowrun game scheduled for the "off" Sundays, a Wednesday night Marvel Heroic game, and a monthly D&D game.

The monthly D&D game was supposed to be the dump game. I would put it on for the public, bring in new players, then up-sell them on one of my other games. That way, I would keep a steady influx of new players, filtered through what I perceived as my least-important gaming commitment.

Because I was so dis-interested in running D&D (but motivated by the promise of new players), I asked myself a simple question: what would it take to get me excited about D&D?

If you've been reading a bit, then you probably know that I have two consistent loves: Lovecraftian horror and zombies. I was already scratching the Lovecraft itch with Trail of Cthulhu, but the zombie crave had been left unsatisfied for years. Previous attempts at launching a zombie apocalypse RPG always fell through.

And then, almost as fast as I asked myself the question, the answer was clear: I would run a zombie apocalypse in D&D.

Billing the public game on Meetup as "Game of Thrones meets the Walking Dead," I grabbed my notebook and immediately started free-associating everything my mind could come up with about both zombie apocalypses and fantasy fiction. The first hurdle I jumped over was the cliche trap. A fantasy world full of zombies isn't exactly ground-breaking. Neither genre on its own is known for innovation. That's fine, I said to myself. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here, I'm just grafting something I love...zombies...to something I'm not that crazy about, swords-and-sorcery fantasy.

The next hurdle was the technology one. There is something raw, creative, and freeing to me about just jotting non-sensical notes into a notebook. The less-organized, the better, I thought. Embrace the chaos. I didn't even bother with a regular notebook; I took a bunch of printer paper, hole punched the top left corner of the entire bunch, then slapped a book binding clip onto it. Done. I wrote the campaign's name..."The Darkest Age," based on a not-funny joke in my head about the only thing being darker than the Dark Age was an age of zombies...and began scribbling.

The night before the game, I had Dawn of the Dead on in the background while I went back through my notes, scratching out the stuff that wouldn't work, rewriting and refining the stuff that would. I came up with a simple, charged situation...the PCs were stuck in a halfling village when the zombies came...and was just ready to go for broke.

Meanwhile, on the Meetup page, the popularity of both D&D and zombie apocalypses was clearly evident. I had to turn off RSVPs once I hit the 12 player mark. This lead to the third major hurdle: I had too many players. That's just about the most awesome problem a DM can have, but it's a problem, nevertheless. So I dealt with that the same way I dealt with the other two problems: acknowledging it was going to be a problem, and charging right into it. I knew there was no practical way I was going to run a solid game of D&D with 12 players. Even the 12 players must have known that. So I was going to run a game resembling D&D. Still using the 5e ruleset, I whipped together a bunch of minigames, house rules, and ways to divide and conquer my players.

Then, it was game-time. I had two players who couldn't make it, dropping me to a smaller-but-still-virtually-unmanageable ten players. They showed up, grabbed a pre-gen, tweaked it to their liking, and off we went.

The first game went down exactly how it sounds here: a chaotic mess, a veritble kitchen sink of tropes, cliches, and genre conventions hurled against the wall, and me eagerly examining the mess to see what stuck.

The players loved it. They went on and on about how much fun it was. In my after-game critique where I go around and ask every player to tell me one thing they liked and one thing they disliked, the only consistent thing that came up in the dislike column was that it wasn't a "traditional" enough game. They all understood why it was non-traditional, but nevertheless; they signed up for D&D, not this bizarre amalgamation of freestyle roleplaying and minigames I hammered together under the banner of D&D. They all loved it, and they were eager to see what I'd do with D&D proper. By the end of it, I was eager to see that, too.

So The Darkest Age went from my "RPGing for dummies" game to the one I looked forward to the most. When I told everyone the game would only be monthly, several players were disappointed.

And then, two days later, I got an email from one of this game's players: Nathaniel, a 10-year-old boy who played a monk. He was, to date, the youngest player I've ever had at an RPG event. He asked me if I would please consider making the next game sooner. My heart melted. "What are you doing next weekend?" I responded.

My mind went into overdrive. I whipped out my jumbled pile of papers called a "notebook," scribbled yet more ideas, and this time refined it with the D&D ruleset. I threw together some dungeons. I read the rules on encounter building and made different configurations of zombies to fight. I took the things that worked about the first game, refined them, and kept them in. I took the things that didn't work and filtered them out.

The main thing that didn't work about the first game was the size of the group. But all ten players in the group were awesome, I didn't want to cut a single one of them, no matter what. So I did the necessary thing: I scheduled back-to-back games, taking five players for each. It ended up working out to four in one game and seven in the other (a friend of mine jumped in). Both games went great. And now, here I am.

In two days, we start the third session of Dungeons & Dragons: The Darkest Age. In two weeks, I am within a mere four sessions of my longest-running campaign. And I could not be more excited for it. All of my notes, combined with answers I took from my players, were pooled together and whipped into an Obsidian Portal page, which you can look at here. It contains a wiki of all the major stuff we've learned about the world so far, full character sheets for several of the players in my game, and some brief summaries of the two sessions thus far. The other games...Trail of Cthulhu, Marvel, Shadowrun...one by one have fallen out of my mind. There is nothing left in my brain now except zombies. Hence the irony.

In over 20 years of roleplaying, this may just be the best thing I've ever done.