21 December 2011

Travelling for the Holidays

The family and I are leaving tomorrow for a Christmas visit to my in-laws in Texas.  Blog posting will, correspondingly, be light to non-existent for the next week.

Have a great Christmas or whatever sort of winter holiday you celebrate.  Be merry, safe, and generous!

20 December 2011

I Made a Map!

Above is the small version of the map I made for the "Make Something" project I assigned in my class.  I used pencil to sketch the landforms, then went back and traced the coastline with a fine point black Sharpie.  I traced the rivers with a fine point blue Sharpie.  The water is colored with a mixture of colored pencil and crayon, while the land color is all colored pencil.  Part of the reason I drew a small version first was to practice with technique and color, hence the hodgepodge of color and materials.  If it's not apparent, this is a desert region  -- one I hope to develop into a campaign setting one day.

The larger version is about 18" x 24".  It's on a different type and color of paper, which really changed the way the colors turned out.  On the larger version, I ended up not coloring in all of the land, leaving large spots "blank".  I am not sure if it looks better to color everything (as above) or just color in the landforms that are particular (like deserts, jungles, etc).

What do you think?  

A Response to "Kiddie D&D"

This is a lengthy reply to two posts James wrote at Grognardia last week.

The first is a review/reflection on an old Dragon Magazine article, written by Frank Mentzer, that introduces the (then) new Red Box Basic set.  James sees this as a large shift in D&D, a shift mainly from a hobby into which one is initiated by "experts" to one which one can join and learn on one's own through reading the Basic books.

I think James is right here.  As I've argued before, in my Mentzer reflections, the Basic set is an explicit teaching tool, designed to gradually bring a solo player into the game.  As James notes, this makes sense from a business perspective; TSR wanted as many people to buy the game as possible.  It also makes sense from an "expanding the hobby" perspective.  If you have a fun thing, you want to share it with as many people as possible.  You want to make it easy for people to "get", in both senses of the word.  You want to make it easy for people to put their hands on it.  And you want to make it easy for people to understand what it's about.

Of course, doing so carries with it consequences.  In earlier iterations of the game, you had to be brought into the tribe by an existing member.  One needed to be taught the game by another person, since the game didn't do a good job of teaching itself.  This created immediate personal contact within the tribe; you knew people.  Thus, a sense of community was created, as one depended on others to learn the game.  This also created more room for customization.  Because everyone learned the game from somone else, rather than directly from the same book, there was inevitable differences between games in the form of house rules, rules interpretations, and styles of play.  These differences certainly did not dissappear with Mentzer Basic, but one could see how they could become muted, as individuals learned the game not from a variety of ideosyncratic misfits, but from a nice red book with Elmore and Easley art.

James is clear he doesn't necesarily think the shift was some horrible development, but is clear that there was a change and it had consequences.  As someone from rural South Carolina who began playing with Mentzer, I have different touchstones for the hobby.  There was no tribe for me to join; there was only a red box.  I learned the game from the box, then created my group from my assortment of 11 year old friends.  It worked for me, since there was no one around to teach me how to play.

The other thing that James discusses in the Mentzer post and a subsequent photo is the how the game skewed younger after Mentzer.  Again, he's correct.  The age range on the boxes changed.  There were the toys and the cartoon.  The expansion of the hobby to a younger age set is something that James' younger gaming self found deplorable; D&D was becoming a "kiddie game" which is something no self respecting teenageer/early adult wants to be assoicated with.

But look at the comments to James' post about the D&D figures.  Most of them say "cool" or some other form of positive feedback.  I had the same reaction -- those look cool!  I think this points to something I've been struggling with for some time -- the blurring of the line between childhood (and it's associated accpetable activities) and adulthood.

I think that the current list of what's acceptable for a kid to do and an adult NOT to do has shrunk considerably here in the 21st Century.  The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, but I'd pin in mostly on constant media saturation and the ascendency of "geek culture" in that media.  It's not just geek stuff, however; I have friends that play in a kickball league.

There are certainly postives to this blurring of acceptable activities.  Playing D&D as an adult and being upfront about it is one of those positives.  And, while I am upfront about my hobby with most of the people I work and hang out with, there is still a difference in reaction depending on age.  People my age, even those who are not gamers, don't particularly care.  People older raise eyebrows. The lines between adult and kid are bolder for people who are older than I am by a generation or so.

Generational differences aside, I am generally for people doing whatever they are enthusiastic about that doesn't hurt other people.  D&D, poker, fastasy football, kickball -- whatever makes you happy.  But I am also not sure that this blurring of adult/childhood lines is entirely positive.  I see a lot of supposed adults acting like children in terms of failing to resolve disputes between themselves, often as a result of being unable to back away from something that they are passionate about.  And, as father, I see a lot of things that are offered to/for children that (I think) are unacceptable for children to be engaged in.  I don't think I am being overly prudish here.

I wonder how much "kiddie stuff" really remains out there and whether or not that's a good thing.

Thanks, James, for some provocative posts.

16 December 2011

Glories of the Grid -- An Ode to Graph Paper (Deja Vu Blogfest)

I just found out about the Deja Vu blogfest this morning from Mythopoeic Rambling.  Apparently, it originated with DL Hammons back in November.  I thought it was a good idea, so I am jumping on the bandwagon, albeit very late.

The following is a post from waaay back in 2007, before this blog was a "gaming blog."  I think it stands as a nice piece of reflection on my own gaming past.  I'm interested to hear your thoughts!

An Ode to Graph Paper

I sometimes wonder why I keep a notebook AND a blog. It seems a little redundant. Granted, I can write things in a notebook I don't want to put out into the world. A notebook is portable (although I could twitter from my phone if I really wanted to). But one of the big reasons, I think, is that the notebook inspires me in ways the blog does not.

I started a new notebook today after filling up my Moleskin Pocket notebook last week. I've had this new one for awhile, ever since my 29th birthday/dissertation defense party. It was a gift, but I am sorry to say I forget from whom (the Moleskin was a gift, too. I think I received four notebooks/journals at that party. All of which have been used). This new notebook is thick, perhaps 200 pages, with a leather cover that is flexible and soft. It reminds me of the black King James Bible that seemed a staple of the churches I attended in my youth. In what is a first for me, it's neither lined nor blank; it's gridded.

The fact that I have a notebook full of graph paper leads me to think it was a gift from one of my gaming group friends. I remember someone saying "Hey, graph paper! You can use it to plan some D&D adventures."

I am not sure a page full of tiny squares has significance to any group of people the way it does to those of us who grew up in the 1980's playing Dungeons and Dragons. Graph paper meant dungeons (hex paper meant wilderness). I bought, collected, and hoarded graph paper. It was necessary equipment, like 50 ft of rope or a large sack. I had so many dungeons I needed to draw, I could never have enough graph paper. I'd ask for an extra sheet in algebra class, then take it to my dad's office after school and make copies, storing them in a red folder on the shelf with my D&D books. But this copied graph paper was always inferior to the green or blue lined paper you could buy. I preferred the green lines. That was the good stuff, because your pencil lines always showed up easier on the green paper. It was harder for me to get a hold of, so I was very pleased when my cousin gave me a big pad of green graph paper and a nice automatic pencil for my birthday. She worked at a bookstore and was well acquainted with my love for D&D. I immediately wrote on the front of this pad, in a 13 year old's feeble attempt at medieval script: "You are now in the realm of Dungeons and Dragons!", thus marking the pad for its designated purpose. It was for drawing dungeons.

Dungeoncrafting was some sort of esoteric science that was part art, a mixture of alchemy and cartography.  There was a special vocabulary of symbols to master, special signs for secret doors, doors that opened only one way, pit traps, crossbow traps, stairs that went up, stairs that went down, and stairs that collapsed on the unwary adventurer. There was always a compass rose, so you'd know that "the corridor stretches 50 feet to the north before ending in a stout looking wooden door." As a dungeon master, I'd do my best to communicate these directions, dimensions, and secrets to the players who, armed with their own graph paper (hopefully with green lines), would attempt to map the dungeon. This never, ever worked. Invariably, something went awry. Corridors didn't match up. Stairs ran into rooms. Dimensions didn't make sense ("uh, it's a magical room!"). So we'd spend what seemed like hours pouring over the player's map, trying to figure out if they had added 10 feet to a corridor or I'd forgotten to mention the side passage halfway down.

In high school, my friends and I played in a game set in Undermountain -- a giant, giant dungeon under a city. I cheated and didn't make it all up. I just bought the $25.00 boxed set with the four poster sized maps and the two books that detailed the place. I had the pre-made posters, which I copied in sections so I could keep them hidden behind my DM's screen, but I made the players draw their own map. It really didn't take that much convincing. They started with a 10x10 room at the center of a sheet of the green lined paper -- the well in the common room of the Yawning Portal Inn -- and expanded from there. Soon, the dungeon ran off the edge of that first sheet of paper, so they'd add others, labeling each new sheet "A, B, C" and so on. I think we got to K by the time I went to college. These guys would tape the new sheets to the old ones, being careful to allow enough room between the pages so that they could be folded and put away. At the beginning of each new session, they would take out the map and carefully unfold it, laying it gently on the green felt of the pool table that served as our gaming table. (We ruined that table for pool, by the way, with our pencil marks, drink spills, and tears in the felt). The group would tell me which unfinished corridor they wanted to explore next, and off we'd go, lanterns at the ready, carefully marking of 10 foot increments of stony corridor on a little grid of green lines.

We were exploring the unknown, fighting the evil that threatened to plunge the city above into chaos. The graph paper helped us keep track of it all. Otherwise, we would have been lost.

15 December 2011

Mentzer on Alignment -- Mentzer Reflections Part 14

For this next entry in my Mentzer reflection series, I am skipping around in the Basic Red Book to discuss alignment.  It's mentioned early on, as you work through the sample adventure as the fighter.  It comes up again on page 52, when Mentzer notes that even though one's character is chaotic, the player doesn't need to act wildly.  The principle discussion of alignment occupies about one-half of page 55.

Let me preface this with a few things.  First, I am not one of those players who hates alignment or thinks it has no place in the game.  I think it is useful to have an in game reminder of what constrains a character's actions.  And I think it's useful to be able to establish a character or monster's connection to cosmic/supernatural/primeval forces.  Second, I really do not like alignment debates.  I find few things as tedious as "would the paladin really kill the fleeing orc women" discussion.  Finally, this is also an area where my non-gaming/professional interests get in the way a bit, as I've taught and written about moral philosophy.

With all that throat clearing, let me begin with my initial interpretation of how alignment is presented in Mentzer -- as moral philosophy.  As presented, the alignments express essential moral beliefs and the consequent prescriptons for behavior.  Lawful is belief in order and following rules is natural; one should keep her promises and think about the good of the group.  Chaotic is the belief in a lack of order; one should act on impulse and whim, which does not entail group cohesion.  Neutral is the belief in balance between the two above forces; individuals and groups must work togehter.

I don't want to spend too much time picking these things apart.  They each get a paragraph.  This is a game for 12 year olds, not The Metaphysics of Morals.  Yet even 12 year olds can likely see that there's no direct relation between a balance between law and chaos (as the central beliefs of neutral are described) and someone "who is most interested in personal survival."  That sounds close to what chaotic individuals beleive, actually -- "the individual is the most important of all things."  If one thinks about this very much, it all gets tangled up into a big, non-helpful mess.  This is one way in which the alignment axes in AD&D is vastly superior, imho.

But maybe we're not really supposed think about this very much.  The text equaltes Lawful with good, chaotic with evil, and neutral with some sort of situational ethic (which doesn't make a lot of sense, either).  Why couldn't we just have "good", "evil", and "animal" and be done with it?

I am rapidly coming around to the view that the best interpretation of the three alignment system is that it expresses a being's orientation to some greater cosmic order?  There are literal forces of law and chaos out there; one's alignment expresses which "team" one is on.  That also gives some creedence to the idea of alignment languages; one's cosmic orientation is expressed in how one moves and gestures.  Otherwise, I've got nothing to account for those things!  There's not much of this "embodiment of cosmic forces" interpretation in Mentzer, however

14 December 2011

On Dungeon Design and The Big Room

I am a regular reader of Gnome Stew.  They generally give good GM advice over there; I've found a number of tips and ideas from their regularly-updated columns.

That being said, something about today's "Playing in the Big Room" article rubed me the wrong way.  The central argument of the piece is that you should start your dungeon design with The Big Room and work your way outward from there.  The Big Room is, literally, a Big Room -- the large room at the center of the dungeon.  Here, larger monsters can be placed, mounds of treasure can be stashed, and The Big Fight can happen.  Here, you can put that crazy monster you've always wanted to place in a game.  You should also dress the room up with cool terrain, NPC's, and atmosphere.

This sounds great, right?  What's my problem with this?

My problem isn't with the order one puts the dungeon rooms on a page.  I don't think that matters.  Nor is it with the desire to work in cool ideas, interesting terrain, or fun encounters.  My issue is with the assumption, explicit early in the article, that the dungeon should be designed for the players.
"There should be something to challenge each party member’s specialty ability or skill set, as well as something to amaze, to amuse, to frighten and  perhaps something it would be best to evade or avoid."
The Big Room then becomes:
"the centerpiece of the dungeon level. It often is where the PCs encounter the big bad evil dude, dudette or monster. It can be — but not necessarily is — the climatic point of the adventure. Which means, hopefully, the Big Reward is somewhere nearby." (typos in original)

No big room here.

I don't think dungeons need a centerpiece.  Nor do they need a Big Bad.  They do need things to fight.  And they do need things that are best to avoid, given the party's condition at any given time.  And I hope they have amazing, amusing, and frightening things.  I am also all for cramming fun and interesting things in your dungeon in whatever way you want.  I just think that should be done independently of any concerns about an adventuring party.

There are two reasons for this.  First, it's not as if whomever "actually designed" the dungeon in your fantasy world did so for the sake of murder-hobos out for loot (unless they did, which is cool).  They did it to keep prisoners in, or to keep the goblins out, or as a place where they could store their mad magical creations before setting them loose on the outside world.  Or maybe it's all just slightly acidic water eroding soft limestone.  This is not a plea for hyper-realism.  We're talking about mega-dungeons, after all.  It's simply to point out that, in making a dungeon, a logical approach to take is to assume the perspective of whomever would actually make the dungeon.  Whomever that is is not making the dungeon as a scaling series of challenges for an approproiate level party.

Secondly, I think assuming party composition in dungeon design limits creativity.  Now, instead of thinking about what's cool, scary, or interesting, one is worrying about having enough traps to challenge the rogue while not hamstringing the fighter, while creating enough big open spaces so the evoker can actually use all those spells he's prepared.  "Do what thou wilt" should be the mantra of dungeon design.  Maybe you don't need or want a big room.  Maybe there is no big bad evil guy.  I actually think that's what the Gnome Stew article is getting at with it's advice about The Big Room and the sharks with laser beams moment.  Sharks with laser beams don't care about party composition.  I just think that's contravened by this earlier assumption about overall dungeon design.  Designing with the party in mind contravenes the idea of tactical infinity, insofar as bulding challenges specific to certain party specilizations often limits solutions to those challenges to the invocation of those specializations.

There's also the very real possibility that when you're designing a dungeon, you don't have a party to design for.  That is, you're not making the dungeon as part of some exisiting set of adventures, you're making the dungeon because you have some free time and it's fun to do.

Of course, you could roll on some tables and randomly generate all of it, in which case this is all moot.

My point here isn't really that The Big Room idea is a bad one, it's just that the article somewhat contradicts itself by 1)encouraging gonzo ideas in construction of the big room while 2)beginning with the assumption that design needs to proceed from party composition.

12 December 2011

Heroes and Dragons -- A Friendly, Non-Local, Game Store

We headed out of town this past weekend to visit my family in Conway, South Carolina.  On our way back, we made a pit stop in Columbia for lunch; I talked the wife into letting me swing by Heroes and Dragons, an FLGS I had visited a long time ago.  Though they had moved across the street, we found them with a minimum of hassle.

I had great plans of taking some pics and posting a quasi-walk through, but then my (tired) four year old had a minor meltdown over a fairy statue and we had to cut our visit short.  (It did not matter that I had secret plans of buying her the fairy for Christmas as soon as she and her mom went back to the car.  She had to Have. It. Now.  And now I can't even get it for her because she threw a fit about it and I don't want to reward that behavior.  And, yes, I am still bitter).  Anyway, where was I?

Oh, yeah.  Heroes and Dragons is a cool store.  It's huge!  They have separate sections for comics, toys/collectibles, games (RPG's, miniatures, and board games), used books, and game tables.  Everything was clean and well lit.  They had a large selection of high-quality used sci-fi and fantasy books, which skewed to newer stuff, though I did see some interesting Edgar Rice Burroughs volumes.  They also had a decent selection of pulp novels, though I saw more adventure books than fantasy pulps.  The game selection was good, with a glass display case with some older materials -- I saw a number of 1E D&D adventures in there, including Beyond the Magic Mirror.  There were maybe 8 tables set up for gaming in another section of the store.  My daughter seemed particularly fascinated by the terrain that was set up on and under them.

I ended up not getting anything, due to the aforementioned meltdown, but I definitely want to check the store out again next time I am down that way.

Here's their commercial:

09 December 2011

Character Creation -- Mentzer Reflections Part 14

After listing all the possible character classes, Mentzer takes us through the 10 steps necessary to create one from scratch.  Reading this again, I wasn't struck by much.  That is, it seemed to jive with my memory and my re-emergent old school sensibilities.  Again, one of the things I am after here is to figure out how the game ought to be, given what the text says.

For the stats, one rolls 3d6 in order.  There are provisions for rerolling an entire set of stats if the highest ability is less than 9 or if two or more scores are less than 6.  This is rationalized on the basis of "suitability."  The said character likely isn't suitable for dangerous dungeon crawling.  I don't want to read too much into that, but it does give some credence to the "characters are extraordinary" stance that D&D evolved into.  Stats come before choice of class, of course, with the reminder to look at a class's prime requisite and compare it to the stats before choosing.

One then has the ability to alter the rolled stats through what seems to be to be an overly complex process.
You raise your prime requisite by 1 for every 2 points you lower another score.  You can only raise your prime requisite.  You can't lower your dexterity, constitution, and charisma.  This means you only have strength, intelligence, and wisdom to play around with. And you cannot lower any score below 9.  Was this some recognition of the potential to min/max?  Was this all done to prevent charisma from being a dump stat?  This whole system puzzles me.

The remainder of the character creation process was straightforward, with the standard roll for hit points, write your saving throws down, figure your armor class, etc list.  One thing made me smile was in the "buy equipment" section, however.  There, we get this line: "Be careful shopping!"  What this means, based on the text that follows, is that one should select one's adventuring materials carefully, because you don't want to be in the dungeon and really need something and not have it.  It also speaks to the resource management aspect of the game, especially at the beginning stages.  It made me smile, however, because I pictured my newly made character getting ambushed and killed while selecting equipment, dying before he ever made it to the actual adventure, a la some other systems.

Two art pieces on these pages.  One is an Elmore drawing of a female elf, sitting on a log listening, with a look of forbearance, to a male halfling while a dwarf stands by rolling his eyes.  The other is another Elmore sketch and more interesting.  It's of a hand rolling dice.  We can see a pencil and character stats on a piece of paper (so far, the player has a 14 strength and a 9 intelligence, with a blank by wisdom).  I think it's interesting because it depcits the process of making a character and is not at all fantasy art.  I don't recall any other art in D&D that depicts a player or the process of playing rather than characters or fantastic elements within the game.  Can anyone help me out with other examples of the former?

Next in the series, I am going to talk about Alignment, which is already making my head hurt.  But we'll get to that next week.

07 December 2011

What Was Made

A few weeks ago, I posted about the final project I assigned my class -- to make something.  I just returned from that class; they presented their final projects today and discussed the process of their making.

I was blown away.  These things were incredible.  One student tried to replicate her grandmother's biscuit recipe because her grandmother has Alzheimer's and can't pass the recipe on to others.  She brought the results to class.  Another student stitched a stuffed animal that was the "daughter" of a favorite stuffed animal from childhood.  Another student illustrated a chapter from his fantasy-novel-in-progress.  Yet another student made a bento box and filled it with homemade traditional Japanese bento dishes (triangle rice balls, cucumber sushi).  She did all this in her dorm room!  The project that may have the most interest to this blog's audience was a student's work based on A Game of You.  First, she made a three-dimensional art project that used panels from the graphic novel, but arranged them in a new sequence.  She added dialogue in a creative way to illustrate themes of the course.  It looked awesome.  Then, she also made the Porpentine! And gave it to me!  I am wearing it around my neck right now.  If it's not apparent, I am extraordinarily proud of my students and jazzed about it all right now.

I made a map.  More about that soon.

06 December 2011

Boy, this sucks -- computer update

Just found out the hard drive on the old laptop is toast, with the only chance for recovery being expensive "we extract data from banks that tried to hide their money laundering and then burned their hard drives" companies. Big thing gone is a ton of family photos, but there was some work stuff and gaming stuff on there as well.  We have some backups, but not an especially recent one.  I know, yell at me later.

Back up everything, kids.  Early and often.

Anyway, a new computer is in the future for us.  The dead machine is a MacBook, which I really liked, but I am not an Apple snob.  I am intrigued by the idea of building my own PC, but wonder if I have the skills and the time.

02 December 2011

Awesome Friday

Friday is typically a light posting day for most folks.  I thought I'd keep it light today by just sharing a few things that I think are awesome.

1.  These GIF'ed up classic comic book covers by Kerry Callen: (hat tip to Andre Pope who posted this on G+)

Not animated here, but click on the link above!
2.  The fact that the barristas at the Starbucks here on campus know what tea I drink and have it ready for me when I make it to the counter after waiting in line.

3.  The fact that we have some old, battered piano in the big classroom across from my office.  Random people just sit and play it sometimes and often they are quite good.

Just a few awesome things this morning.  I know I am forgetting many other things.

Edit to add one other awesome thing:

4.  A band I really like, The Steel Wheels, has been performing new material that will appear on their new album that's supposed to come out in March:

01 December 2011

Computer Problems!

Computer problems today led me to all sorts of troubleshooting when I wasn't reading student rough drafts.  Unpleasant.  The problems, anyway.  Most of the drafts were pretty good.

Public thanks to Cthulhu's Librarian and his tech support.