The Saturday Post

Okay, so maybe not the most imaginative title I could conjure… but I did warn you all yesterday, didn’t I?

Welcome!  So, I’ve struggled to maintain this blog for a few of years now.  At its inception, I had the desire to write on the blog all the time… like at any given moment, whenever the fancy struck me, whenever inspiration tugged at me… and then reality imposed itself.  Life’s life, and no matter how hard you try — life’s going to assert its dominance on one’s time regardless of what one desires.  My realities are these: I work full time, I have two kids, I have a wife, I have a desired to write fiction in a recreational capacity; also mix in the usual assortment of obligations that come with the “adulthood” status.  I had to compromise if I wanted to keep writing my blog (which I certainly do… I don’t like to disappoint my audience of bots), and my compromise was to schedule a specific day on which to write a blog entry.  My chosen day was Friday because I’m off of work on Fridays, and the kids are at school, and my wife was generally engrossed in something which allowed me enough time to sit at the computer and bang out a blog entry.  Quick side note: I’m not blaming anyone here; I’m not pointing fingers.  Whether or not the blog gets done is on no one but me, I’m simply enumerating my circumstances for the sake of comprehension… filling in the back story, as it were.  Got it?  With me so far?

Over time, Friday got crowded with errands and, before long, Friday officially became our errand day all for exactly the same reasons why Friday used to work best as my blog day: we’re off from work, the kids are at school, and everything we need to accomplish our errands is open and available.  Makes sense, right?  To complicate matters: in 2013 I started running an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game every other Friday night.  This would be the Friday Night game — the D&D history campaign — I’ve discussed in this blog and about which I’ve written, probably, a lot more than anyone cares to know.  The real exercise here, regardless of the topic about which I’m writing, is the act of writing itself.  The real exercise is the writing and the adherence to a schedule.  Those have been my goals all along and the report card says I’ve failed miserably… and I am not proud.

When I write during NaNoWriMo, I’ve used this blog as a way to document my progress for posterity and my own amusement… but at the moment, it doesn’t look like I will participate in NaNoWriMo this year (rather, I will use the time I normally set aside for the NaNoWriMo challenge, and instead work on the nearly four novels worth of material I’ve already generated and then, for various reasons, ignored).  Outside of NaNoWriMo, I go rant-tastic and write about whatever strange and frenzied things enter my mind… and about those things over which I geek out.  I think that’s a pretty decent use of this space… I just need to recommit to doing it regularly and not allow the lapses to become more frequent than the postings… although I’ve read in a number of places that one shouldn’t write in his/her blog unless he/she has something to say… or something to write about… but I’m pretty convinced there’s no right or wrong way to do this, and I’m mostly happy with the idea of making it all up as I go along.

I’m not enamored enough of social networking (or public sharing) to use the “open a vein and start writing” approach which is popular with many bloggers; nor do I lead an interesting enough life to regale everyone with my adventures, travels, and/or discoveries.  I have no political agendas to promote, and nothing to sell.  I started the blog as a way to share the wisdom I acquired as I attempted to improve my fiction-ing skills but I soon discovered the preponderance of superior blogs which dispense far greater advice than I could ever share.  I’m not a fan of redundancy… especially not where that redundancy doesn’t serve a necessary purpose.  My only advantage is that what I write comes from my own personal experience, and perhaps, if that experience is meritorious enough to even one person, this blog may yet accomplish what I wanted it to accomplish in the very first place; however, I sincerely doubt my own abilities of profundity and that brings us full circle to nowhere.

There’s a lot I want to say about creativity, about art making, about storytelling, about the creative mind and soul, about the way things look funny when you stare at them too long… especially words… but even concepts and ideas.  There’s a lot I want to say about the various traps and dead ends I’ve encountered… about the hazards to which I’ve fallen victim and which have changed the way I do things as fundamental as eating.  I like writing about the things I geek out over.  I like writing about the things I read.  I like writing about the things I drink and eat.  I like writing about weird shit, because weird shit is all around us all the time and we’re often too busy to notice it happening.  I like writing about people’s and organization’s attempt to fuck us over… but I don’t want to turn into that weird, paranoid motherfucker who doesn’t wash and who wears a tinfoil hat to keep the government from scanning his brain.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: Fuck it, it’s my blog — I do what I want! (thanks, Michelle).  Just like my hobby novel-ing, I’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun.  Once it ceases to be fun, I’ll find some other shit to do.  Want to come along for the ride?

Yeah, I think Saturdays will work.  Cheers!

A Quick Note About a Necessary Change

clyde my hero

So, um, I’m moving the Friday post to Saturdays and it shall be, henceforth, known as the “Saturday post.” That’s not a challenge to any established titles out there, so don’t sue… I’m penniless anyway and you’d just come across as a complete dick for suing the pants off of a guy who’s only got like six pairs total… Capiche? Groovy.

Fridays just aren’t good anymore — usually we’re busy with errands and what-nots.  Saturdays aren’t much better, but I’ll give it a spin and see how it goes.  Most of you out there in my readership are bots anyway, so I don’t imagine I’ll get many (any…) objections.

Cheers!

A Study in Contrasts

IMG_20140830_162828

I got busy doing some stuff around the house yesterday and just never buckled myself down to put the Friday post together.  This happens when you occupy yourself doing things you’ve been putting off for a while.  The end result is a neater, nicer den that doesn’t look like we just moved in (we’ve been in this house for a little over three years); thus making it a space which is more conducive to me writing and creating, and less conducive to me sitting here thinking: “I really need to do something about this mess.”  Before I move on with the actual meat of today’s belated posting, I want to mention that, sadly, The Wil Wheaton Project was not renewed for another season.  Wil Wheaton posted this on his blog yesterday, and I have to say I find it disappointing that the execs at SyFy don’t seem to be aware of what appeals to their audience or perhaps even who their audience is.  Fuck ’em!  We still have Geek & Sundry, we still have TableTop, we still have programming which appeals to our tastes… most of it is simply not available via network or cable television.  Increasingly network and cable are becoming less relevant for entertainment delivery, and this is just further evidence of that fact.  So it goes.

On with the show…

I’m running two distinct Dungeons & Dragons games right now: a 3rd edition game for my Friday night group composed of adults, and a D&D Next play test rules game for my library group composed of teens… actually, we just recently converted to the current 5th edition rules now that they’re available, now it’s a 5E game.  I wrote a bit about 5th edition in last week’s post, and this week I want to compare that to the 3rd edition experience to give 3/3.5E adherents some perspective regarding the two editions.  3rd edition (and I mean the August 2000 3rd edition, and not the later 3.5 edition revision that came out in 2003) was a complete rework of the TSR D&D rules.  1st and 2nd edition AD&D were based on, for lack of a more appropriate term, the Gygax/Arneson engine which included a lot of legacy rules from war-gaming and probably a lot of rules which were crafted on the fly and then later codified and added to the game system.  It had the same sort of beauty possessed by an albatross:  majestic yet clumsy.

3rd edition introduced the D20 System which made D&D a lot like other popular role playing games of the time, but still managed to maintain the unique flavor that was D&D despite what all the haters and Grognards say.  The spirit of the game was kept pretty much intact, but the D20 System rules did introduce an element to the game which enabled players to exploit the rules and make super, high powered characters that potentially took the fun out of everything for everyone.  Now, people have been hacking games like that as long as there’s been games so this is nothing new — the AD&D system had its share of Min/Max-ers whose primary goal was to break the game and grief the fuck out of everyone else at the table… the D20 System just introduced a new set of weaknesses by tilting the game too far over in favor of the player characters… that is of course unless the DM made liberal use of the monster buffing system… but really, you can only fight so many 15th level orc barbarians with Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization in great axe and maxed out skill ranks before the game loses its charm… blah!

The 3.5 edition revision tried to address some of these issues, and it did a great job but along with the profusion of rules introduced by 3rd edition (which I maintain has as many, if not more, complicated bonus/penalty to condition/situation modifiers as any 1st or 2nd edition game) it added more tangles to the tangles… more to track at the table, and more work for the DM to keep everything straight and un-confused.  Is it a fun-ass game?  Hell yeah, it is… but it’s all too easy to get mired in the rules.  2nd edition AD&D attempted the same thing with 1st edition AD&D that 3.5 edition tried with 3rd edition — to simplify and streamline… and, well… it didn’t quite get there.  In fact the supplementary books which were available at the time only served to add further complications, albeit optional ones… but complications none the less.  The problem with too many rules is the same problem I encountered back in the 80’s when I tried to get folks to play AD&D with me: accessibility.  People found the scads of rules off putting, and I can’t say I really blame them.  Even for a hardcore nerd like me, much of the rules for in game minutiae were things I simply ignored, and I often turned the emphasis on story and role playing rather than spend hours flipping through rules books and debating about some esoteric rule for donkey shit splatter patterns.

I had a bit déjà vu as I prepared to move my Friday night D&D group to 3rd edition.  Somethings are a lot easier to understand in 3rd edition as compared to 1st and 2nd edition AD&D, others… not so much.  I mean it all makes sense, but it’s easy to miss something.  I expect I’ll get better at it the more we play, but I have to admit to fair amount of anxiety about totally cocking up the whole thing.  I perceive my role as the dungeon master as being the guy in charge of making sure everyone has a good time.  Too many rules (and admittedly, my own unfamiliarity with said rules) makes that part of my role more difficult than I prefer because, hey, I get to have fun too hopefully.  3rd edition really requires players and DMs have their eyes on the ball at all times.  It’s easy to forget a bonus or a penalty, attacks of opportunity can result in a mind boggling Gordian knot, and you wind up doing as much math (not that this is entirely a bad thing) at the table as you did back in 1st edition.  Again: fun to play, but that fun comes with a lot of work… and this is a game.  The emphasis should be on the fun.

Quick caveat here: I’m not hating on 3rd edition.  There’s a lot more I like about 3rd edition than there are things I don’t like, and my players really seemed to like that fact that they didn’t have to run from everything anymore.  AD&D (1st and 2nd edition) is still the most lethal version of the game, and they felt like they were a lot more effective as “heroes” than they were in 1st or 2nd edition.  I call that a win.  I’m remarking about certain things in this monologue for the sake of comparison with the recently released 5th edition.  So let’s just get to that now, okay?

My teen players at the library have been playing the D&D Next play test rules since April.  Despite initial teen-related mental meanderings, ridiculously brief attention spans, hook-ups, and breaks to deal with personal problems (ah, working with teens…) most of them got the gist of the rules after only a few sessions.  The kids who attend the game sessions to play the game understand the mechanics of the game… the ones who show up to hang out and be… well… teens, have some trouble with the mechanics of the game because they don’t pay attention and not because the game is difficult to understand.  5th edition rules are even more simplified than the play test rules; but they’re simplified without being simplistic.  Everything you expect from a D&D game is there, but the rules are really boiled down to cover the most common things — the rest is left up to the judgement of the DM, who’s been making judgments and house rules all along anyway.  That reliance on the DM is now simply blended into the rules.  There are a few spots where one will still encounter a doubling of a number, or a bonus/penalty to a modifier, but for the most part everything is addressed by the Advantage/Disadvantage rule.

The tangle of rules and modifiers appear to have been weeded down to the barest minimum.  This speeds up game progress, and it reduces the amount of time the group needs to spend consulting rules thus giving more opportunity for play.  5th edition is really a hybridization of the best of the previous editions.  It’s a bridge between the TSR Gygax/Arneson engine and the WotC D20 System.  Most importantly to me, it’s accessible and easy to explain… even easier for a newbie to pick up simply by joining a round and doing rather than reading.  5th edition has a very clear emphasis on role playing, and it tries to tuck back the rules as much as possible to allow the game group to focus on building stories and keeping things exciting.  I like this because I believe the rules should never get in the way of the game.  Combat resolution is faster and more thrilling, and the monsters appear to be well balanced to where they can provide an adequate challenge for players without overpowering or under powering too easily.

Power balance appears to be something to which the R&D team really paid close attention.  Player characters receive a rather generous allotment of buffs and features, but none of these make any one class more powerful than the others (wizards still have a lot of potential for massive power at higher levels, but it’s in the nature of game system magic rules to make things just a bit unbalanced… it’s obvious, though, that D&D R&D attempted to address this).  Players begin at a more reasonable power level as opposed to 1st and 4th editions: not too weak, and not too overwhelmingly strong.  I have to admit to a bit of anxiety here as well because I’m still new to the 5th editions rules just as I am to the 3rd edition rules; however, I don’t feel as much anxiety because it’s a lot easier to untangle oneself from the 5th edition rules as compared to the 3rd edition.

As I’ve said several times before in previous posts: the folks who love one particular edition of the D&D game are going to continue loving that edition no matter what — it’s human nature to grant loyalty to something about which one feel strongly.  You can’t do anything but respect that… Rather, I should say: you shouldn’t do anything but respect that.  If you’re interested, I’ve written a review of the new Player’s Handbook on Goodreads which you can read here.  If you’re not interested, you can kiss my butt.  All of this comes with an ulterior motive which I’m not ashamed to disclose: I want this game to be around for a long, long time, and I want people to continue to play and enjoy Dungeons & Dragons regardless of which flavor they happen to prefer.

Thoughts… A Bonus Post

(I missed last week’s post.  It just didn’t happen.  I started a thought and then had to leave it, and it stayed in draft all week… and then my Player’s Handbook arrived and everything pretty much went out the window.  Here now is the post that was supposed to appear last Friday, along with my apologies.)

I wish I could say, “I’ve always sought answers to my questions from books,” but that would be a lie.  I love books.  Books are some of my favorite things in the world.  When I was a child, I sought answers to my questions from adults… and that with a reservation and timidity which more often led to me not asking.  I found my truths (or as close as I could come to truth) from observations.  It’s how we all learn at first.  The moment we become cognizant of the world and our surroundings we begin to observe and absorb.  It’s only later on, through training and education, that we learn to ignore…  That sounds perhaps a bit too harsh.  We learn to filter, but hopefully we also learn to research.

As human beings, we are naturally inclined to believe other human beings… that is, of course, until experience teaches us otherwise and this usually comes about the first time someone misleads you… lies to you… burns you with untruth.  Finding answers from books is still asking answers from other people only the other person in the exchange is greatly removed from you and it’s not as easy to discern if they are telling you the truth or not.  Knowledge is a powerful thing and there are enough people out in the world who are threatened by the idea of people knowing too much, and (as I mentioned in a previous post) many are inclined to lie in order to get you to believe their perspective.

As a guy who works in a library it’s important to me (not only for myself but for you guys and all the other people I care for) to believe in the power of making informed decisions.  We all make stupid decisions.  It’s a fact of life.  I’ve made many… many… and continue to do so on a regular basis.  It’s a part of being human and being happily fallible.  There’s nothing wrong with it, and we don’t learn if we don’t make mistakes and, in making those mistakes, learn how to correct them.  Books are a resource by which we are able to head off at the pass some of those dumb decisions.  Not a bad deal if you think about it, but the problem is people have a tendency to research stuff after they’ve already made a bad decision.  What’s that they say about hindsight?

It’s admittedly difficult to filter out all the noise and get to the root piece of information you need to make your decision.  There’s a lot of agendas at work that, believe it or not, want to keep you from knowing too much and it’s a known tactic of marketing and advertising to create an illusion of need for something that may not even really be good for you.  The advice I can impart here is simply this: have your bullshit sensor set to “high.”  Realize that there are many forces trying to steer you to make a decision that’s in their best interest and not necessarily in your best interest.  Be skeptical, and don’t accept anything at face value.  No, I’m not saying you should be paranoid, you should just develop an alert trust in the world and listen to your instincts.

Go to books and subject specialists when you need to know more about a particular topic, but make sure you pass the information you receive through the bullshit test — that is, be careful not to fall victim to your own confirmation bias.  Check facts, check them again, and then make the decision that is best for you.  All decisions have consequences, and you have to be sure that you’re willing to live with the ones that accompany the decision you make.  Scary?  Hell yeah, it is…  Remember: when businesses and companies were locally owned and operated, they had a healthy concern for you as a consumer/customer.  It was in their best interest to take care of you because their livelihood depended on your repeat business, and your opinions counted as the best advertisement and marketing they could afford.   Multinational corporations and organizations don’t give a single, dry shit about you no matter what their ad campaign says.  They try to put as friendly a face on their shenanigans as they can afford, and believe me… they can afford a lot.  We’re all definitely at a disadvantage here because none of us can leverage the kind of money it would take to make a difference in how these entities operate.  We can sign petitions and vote our little hearts out, but we gave up the yoke a long time ago and we might never be able to wrestle it back.

We can only make an immediate difference for ourselves and our loved ones, and we do that by making informed decisions and choices that are best for us.  Robert Fulghum, regardless of how saccharine sweet his credo is, put it best in his All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten: “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”  That’s the best we can do for one another.  We have to look out for each other, because our institutions aren’t interested in taking care of anyone.  Take care of you and yours, and hope that the other guy is doing the same.  Remember: “homies help homies, always.”

Cheers!

D&D then? D&D Next? No, no my friend: D&D now!

DnD_PHB

In the ongoing D&D game I run for my friends every other Friday night, we’re taking a historical tour of the development and changes the game has seen throughout its forty year history.  The Friday Night Group (as I affectionately, although less than creatively, refer to them) started in 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons taking on The Temple of Elemental Evil.  So far, they survived the moat house ruins — The Village of Hommlet portion of the adventure — and converted to 2nd edition AD&D for their expedition to Nulb.  Now, as the time nears for them to enter the temple itself, we’re converting to 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons; leaving behind the 80’s and the 90’s, and entering the 00’s; and beginning our exploration of the d20 System.  Why?  Why not?  My Friday Night Group game is a history lesson in D&D-ology.  I had the good fortune to play the Basic/Expert version, the BECMI version, 1st edition AD&D, and 2nd edition AD&D… and the folks who play in the Friday Night Group had not.

I didn’t take my players back all the way to Basic/Expert or BECMI — we started with 1st edition AD&D and went forward from there because I guess I believe the AD&D systems (1st and 2nd editions) were the definitive versions of the game during their respective time periods… and they were the incarnations of the game I played most and thus the ones with which I’m most familiar.  It was interesting to revisit those editions of the game — I was immediately reminded of the things I loved and the things I didn’t love about both of those incarnations.  Most of what I didn’t like had to do with the sheer volume of cumbersome rules.  I always got around the “great wall of rules” by focusing my games more on role playing and less on the average spread of percentile dice rolls necessary to determine what direction the spray from a half elf’s sneeze will go under a particular set of conditions. I’m just not in it for that sort of thing. I’m there for the creative part… the storytelling part… the social part. People who insist on more realism in their fantasy role playing games kind of baffle me. It’s a fantasy role playing game… you know, “fantasy”… it’s not supposed to be realistic. I look at it this way: rules should never get in the way of the enjoyment of the game… ever. This translates into me having little tolerance for “rules lawyers” and “griefers” because spoiling the enjoyment of the game is pure, unbridled bullshit. It also might mean that 3/3.5 edition and I might not get along too well.

I’ve studied 3/3.5 D&D, but I’ve never actually played it, much less DMed. From a mechanics stand point I find this edition very appealing, but the more I look at the combat system the more my brain starts to shriek.  1E AD&D was a booger for rules… thorough, but unnecessarily complex. 2E AD&D tried to slim down the core rules, and was mostly successful at first… but then it got bogged down by too many options.  From what I’ve seen and learned about 3/3.5E so far, 3E went back to the 1E formula and became a woolly booger for rules and then 3.5E tried to disentangle it… with more or less success… Pathfinder might have licked that tangle… it could be considered 3.75E.  4E?  Totally different monster… D&D with the role playing aspect reinterpreted to a strategic model as opposed to the kind of role playing that made D&D famous… (Infamous?  That means “more than famous,” right? Whatever…)

All this is a preamble… I’m sorry to say, it took me a little over 600 words to get to the point (which is not uncommon for me): I received my D&D 5E Player’s Handbook on Tuesday and I’m pleased.  Is it perfect?  No, of course not.  Nothing touched by human hands can ever be perfect, and perfection is an illusion anyway.  Okay, maybe a little too philosophical… sorry.  I digress… yet again…  I already know the 5E rules… I had a hand (very small hand… maybe not even pixie-sized) in the development of those rules, and they’re available for free as a PDF document on the Dungeons & Dragons website — anyone can download the rules and play the game… the “network television” version of D&D 5E.  The Player’s Handbook constitutes the “basic cable” version, and the forthcoming Monster Manual and Dungeon Master’s Guide are the “full package cable with ‘on demand.'”  I like this extensible version of D&D.  I like the fast and easy rules, I like the emphasis on role playing, I like that Wizards of the Coast‘s D&D R&D team put the “table” back in table top RPGing…. they brought “table” back… they helped D&D get its groove back… Nope, no good… it just doesn’t have the right ring to it… but you know what I mean, I hope.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E is a game to play with your homies.  Seriously.  Gather four or five friends, break open a Starter Set (c’mon, it’s only $20… you can’t even get a proper buzz on $20 anymore), and get a game going.  D&D is a social thing… that’s the magical quality that the original had, that the revised red Basic book and the revised blue Expert book had… that the boxed BECMI sets had… that the Rules Cyclopedia had.  It was the magic that AD&D, in both of it’s overly complex manifestations, had.  It’s why this damn game matters to so many people, and why they’re so God damned passionate about it even if they haven’t played in years.  Uncles Gary and Dave left us with this ridiculously awesome legacy — they gave us the ability to make stories together, to create our own legends, and they gave us an excuse to forge friendships that are founded on shared imagination and trust.

With all that in mind, here now, is my review of the D&D 5E Player’s Handbook

Do you need the Player’s Handbook to play the game?  No, you don’t… not to play the essential D&D 5E.  You can do that with an adventure book, like The Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and the Basic Rules downloaded from the D&D website.  You can play with a $20 Starter Set and nothing else.  So why invest $50 in a Player’s Handbook?  I don’t know.  I don’t work for WotC, so I’m not interested in selling the book to anyone except that I have the ulterior motive of wanting the game to stay around for a long time.  I can tell you why I bought it: it extends the game, offers more options that give players a great variety of choices through which they can express their creativity.  The Basic Rules give you the “iconic” races (human, elf, dwarf, and halfling), four core classes (cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard), and six backgrounds (acolyte, noble, folk hero, criminal, sage, and soldier).  This makes for a good set of fantasy character combinations.  The Player’s Handbook gives you the “iconic” races and subraces from the Basic Rules plus drow elves, dragonborn, tieflings, gnomes, half orcs, and half elves.  It gives you the core classes plus barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin, ranger, sorcerer, and warlock.  There’s a plethora (heh, “plethora”) of backgrounds, and optional rules for things like multiclassing and feats.

Speaking of feats, one of the greatest feats the 5E Player’s Handbook pulls off is that the large menu of options it offers never feels overwhelming.  I look at the splatbooks for 3/3.5E or the ones for 2E and those, at times, make my head swim.  It’s not that the information in any those products is bad, it’s just not well organized.  The 5E Player’s Handbook is very well organized with a very high production value and a lot of thought about how the game information is presented.  Organized into three parts, the Player’s Handbook first guides you through making a character, then presents the information you need to play the game, and then gives you the rules for magic and an extensive selection of spells.  Things are pretty easy to find in the book and I found that after my initial flip-through to gawk at the artwork, I was able to recall easily where certain pieces of information were located and go back to them.

The book is beautiful to look at.  From an aesthetic standpoint, the art and illustrations presented here are likely the finest ever used in a D&D product. Tyler Jacobson (one of my absolute favorite fantasy artists) nails the cover with an homage to Against the GiantsKing Snurre never looked so badass.  Additionally, the book is also a tactile delight: the glossy cover with a textured, matte half-back cover; and the thick, durable interior pages make you not want to put the book down.  The binding is solid, and I expect (especially for fifty fucking dollars) that my Player’s Handbook will stand up to some use.

Yes, the price point is a bit of a nit pick for me: $50 is a little steep.  My teen players balked at the price tag when I told them how much the book cost, but of course they don’t need it because the Basic Rules are free (Did I mention that already?) and that’s what keeps me from declaring total bullshit over the cover price tag.  Is the Player’s Handbook worth $50?  All things considered, yes… yes it is.  This is a high quality product that turns a good game (Basic Rules) into a great game… but I think Hasbro and WotC could have been a little more merciful with the price… just a little.  I have to point out though that the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is also $50 and it includes the GM portion of the game.  With D&D 5E, I still have to shell out another $50 for the Dungeon Master’s Guide when it comes out in November.  Did I say, “I have to…?”  That’s not entirely true.  There’s a Basic Rules for DMs available for free as a PDF on the Dungeons & Dragons website, so the purchase of the Dungeon Master’s Guide is not absolutely required… but I wanted to point out the fact that the potential for another $50 expense can be perceived as an edge for Pathfinder which is D&D’s biggest competition.  Personally, I’ll spend the money… I’m Team D&D.  I like Pathfinder, but I owe that system no loyalty; it didn’t play a part in the formative years of my life.

I’m not going to devote much space to the game rules because you can see those for yourself without spending a dime — go forth and download the Basic Rules, learn the game, the end.  I will say that this is one of the most accessible incarnations of D&D ever.  Combat is covered in ten pages.  No shit, in-ten-pages.  The game rules are streamlined, boiled down to just the essentials but they never feel as if they don’t cover everything.  D&D R&D simply added a brilliant little game mechanic called Advantage/Disadvantage which replaces the copious amount of situational modifiers found in earlier editions.  No more +2 for being on higher ground, -2 for low light conditions, +4 for this, -1 for that… If your character is in an advantageous position or under favorable conditions, roll two d20s and take the higher of the two rolls — that’s Advantage.  Unfavorable conditions, roll two d20s and take the lower of the two rolls — that’s Disadvantage.  It speeds up the game and still gives players an edge when they have it, and a penalty when they don’t.

Have I convinced you?  No?  No big… That’s not my job.  Within the context of this post, my job was simply to inform… and maybe entertain a little.  I love this game… Ah, this fuckin’ game…  If you’re inclined, I say “jump off the fence and give it a swing.”  Don’t spend the $50 if you don’t want to: download the Basic Rules and learn the game first; see if you like it.  Find a game on MeetUp or go to your local hobby/game/comic book store and find a game there.  Better still: get a group of buddies together, chip in $5 – $6 each and go in together on a Starter Set and give D&D a spin that way.  Trust me, if you like the game enough spending $50 on the Player’s Handbook will be a lot easier.  If D&D is not your cup of tea, then you’re not out $50.  My heart is a little colder because of it… but that’s life.  This game isn’t for everyone, but for those with whom it connects that connection typically lasts for a lifetime.

Cheers!

Teenage Wasteland

I fell into a black hole last week…  Friday evaporated in a frenzied quest to fulfill a list of school necessities for our kids, and to acquire a D&D 3rd edition Player’s Handbook… which eluded me.  Saturday had similar circumstances, and I had a lot on my mind last weekend but I never got around to sitting in front of the computer to put any of it down.  There’s work stuff, and personal stuff, and game stuff… you know, stuff.  We all have it — the brain clutter that becomes noise in our thoughts of the sort that doesn’t quite settle down when you lay down to sleep at night or when you find yourself with one of those quiet moments which become all too rare when you enter adulthood… particularly when you enter parenthood.  I had an odd one stuck in my craw.

A week ago yesterday (Thursday), I announced to my teens Dungeons & Dragons group (the one the meets at the library) that we would continue to play the current adventure until the end of August, and in September we would begin a new adventure: “The Lost Mines of Phandelver” which is included with the 5th edition Starter Set.  I told them we would only have four player spots open which meant that some of them wouldn’t get to play (I have six players in that group).  To incentivize (totally made up word…) the loss of two players, I offered the chance to win a D&D 5th edition Starter Set so that one lucky kid could strike up his/her own D&D game.  The reaction was less than enthusiastic.  In fact most of them… all of them were disappointed by the prospect.

It’s my program, right?  I mean: that means I get to run this thing the way I want to, don’t I?  This haunted my thoughts almost immediately after that Thursday’s game session was over.  I went away feeling like a heel.  This is a group of teens, and if you’ve never worked with teens before (either in a occupational or voluntary capacity) let me forewarn you that teens, for the most part, are easy to disappoint.  In fact, more than any other age group I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, teens are more susceptible to disappointment than anyone.  In my excitement and enthusiasm for the new edition, I totally forgot one of the most important components of working with teens… shit, of any group dynamic: I forgot to give them a choice.

When you’re a kid, your entire world feels directed… and for the most part, it is.  You don’t get a lot of say in matters, and you have to deal with adults always doing what they feel is best for you.  They tell you what to do, how to dress, where to go, how to act… adults run your life.  On the other side, it’s the parent’s responsibility and obligation to society is to civilize an otherwise wild creature.  You want to show the kid how to function in society and among other human beings.  You want them to absorb those kindergarten lessons and keep them close to their hearts for the rest of their lives because those are the fundamentals of being a decent human being — sharing, taking turns, being considerate of others, not cheating, listening to others, being respectful of others… you know, “the basics”… the shit adults tend to forget because we’re always in a hurry, and what we have to do is more important than anything anyone else has to do, because our needs take precedence over anyone else’s… the typical adult mindset that makes the overwhelming majority of us dicks.  I did the adult-thing of dictating to this bunch of young people the course of their game and I didn’t give them a say in the matter.  I call that a “fail.”

The worse thing you can do when working with young people is not give them a choice… to make them feel like their opinion doesn’t matter.  The world at large already disrespects them enough — hence why you get the rebellious demeanor, and why it’s particularly aimed at parents and other authority figures and institutions.  When I was a kid, I didn’t so much hate being told what to do… I hated not having my opinion count for shit.  Kids inherently want direction, and teens in particular seek authority but they also want to have a say in matters.  They want their ability to make a choice to be respected, they want to be heard, they want to be listened to, and they want attention paid to them.  I know all of this, and I still made the thick-headed, adult decision to take a leisure activity (of all things) and make something about which my players have no say.

I would never do this to a group of adult players, but I forgot myself in my enthusiasm for the new edition.  I came to the conclusion that I needed to make amends and present them with the choice they should have had all along: take option A (the one I dictated to them), or take option B.  “B” would mean we simply keep playing the adventure we are currently playing with the same characters and the same players.  “B” means we update the characters as soon as I get the 5th edition Player’s Handbook in my hands, and we go by those rules going forward.  I felt, very firmly, that this was the absolute right thing to do.  Lo and behold, the group overwhelmingly voted in favor of option B.  No big surprise there.  I asked only one more thing of them: that they devote their attention to the game and not behave in a manner that is disruptive and prevents the other players from enjoying themselves.

Six teenagers is a difficult gaming group size to manage.  They’re teens, so they’re into their shit, each other’s shit, and themselves more than they are into anything else in the universe.  Our first gaming sessions were very disorderly, but they’ve come a long way… or so I thought.  I have two players in particular — I won’t name names… I can’t name names because they’re minors… but I’ll say this: one has the attention span of a gnat (and, I fear, the brains to match) and the other is a borderline narcissist… but then they’re all teens so they’re all borderline narcissists… the one I’m talking about is just particularly bad.  They have a lot of enthusiasm for the game, but it’s very hard to keep them focused.  They have a tendency to disrupt the game with their antics — and they basically want the spotlight to be on them and their characters all the time.  To make matters worse, I have a pair of lovebirds at my table who are all moon-eyed over each other and spend the two hour session cooing at each other and not necessarily engaged in the game.  I have no objections with the hook up (I suspect the girl’s mom might be none too pleased), but their attention is wobbly at best.  My last two players are there to play.  One is a hardcore WOW player, and a video gamer of extreme devotion; the other is a tabletop RPGamer who plays AD&D 2nd edition with his family.  They’re the ones I’m there for primarily… they’re my target audience.

Dungeons & Dragons is a social game.  In fact, that’s one of the key components of this game that’s missing from the world of online gaming.  Sure you can put on a headset and listen to some eleven year old griefer say unkind things about your mother right in your ear, but it’s just not the same as having eyeballs looking back at you from across the table.  I want these kids to engage with one another; to be social and form friendships that may well endure into adulthood and beyond. That’s the main idea anyway.  I spoke to my young people the session before last, about keeping their heads in the game and I thought the message was received.  I was wrong.

This last session was one of the worst since we started playing.  This was herding cats to the extreme… and they pretty much wound up getting on my nerves so much that I almost called the game and walked out.  I understand the shiftless nature of youth… at least I think I do… Perhaps I don’t understand it as much as I want think I do… especially not in it’s contemporary manifestation.  Saying that grants a nod to the bullshit notion that “this generation” is worse than the last… but every one says that about the succeeding generations.  It’s bullshit.  We’re humans… we have a propensity to fuck everything up; it doesn’t matter what generation you come from.

I can’t blame these kids for how they are… we made them this way.  If we don’t like the way our succeeding generations are going we have only ourselves to blame because our decisions have shaped their development.  I chose to have this program.  I chose to bring this game to them, and I’ve given them a lot of lead because I’m there to facilitate a game, not to be their parent or their teacher or their mentor… but then that’s not entirely true.  I do have a responsibility to them to set an example… one example… of one particular manifestation of adulthood.  I’m not obligated to do it, it’s incidental… but I feel it’s important for them because it can make a difference in the person they turn out to be in the end.  It takes a village to raise a child; I do believe that to be true.  It’s important to lead by example because children, especially teens, are impressionable and they will pattern their behavior after the adults to which they are exposed.  If they’re only ever exposed to shitheads, chances are the kid’s going to turn out to be a shithead.  I think it’s good for them to have options.

About the only thing I can do is just keep the game going as best possible.  There’s no use getting mad at them, they’re oblivious to their behavior because they’ve got those massive teen blinders on.  I plan to present the game for the ones that are there to play.  For the ones who are less engaged, well… if they miss out, they miss out.  The game is there, and they’re welcomed to participate if they want — I’m happy to run the adventure for them, but I refuse to play the role of a foster parent… that’s bullshit, and it’s not going to happen.  I felt bad for not giving them a choice in how the program would proceed, and certain members of the group paid me back by getting in the way of the enjoyment of the others.  That’s a separate issue I have to address with the specific individuals, but that would never take away from me doing what I feel is the right thing to do.  I’m largely guided by my own conscience and I don’t plan to change that for anyone.