Quitting Dungeons and Dragons

Someone asked me recently what it would take for me to “quit D&D.”  By which they mean the AD&D system, not ‘gaming in general,’ because I would get quite surly about that nonsense.  I have been ruminating about it for a while, and I was surprised at how much my initial reaction was against the idea.

There’s a lot of my sense of culture and belonging linked more to gaming than it ever was to a location-of-origin, or religious upbringing, or any other anchors that people normally use for their self-labelling.  That means I get a lot of the baggage of being “a gamer,” too. The stereotypes that make us laugh and cringe are the stereotypes of “my people.”  (The song of my people starts, “This one time in a game…” with the chorus of, “Let me tell you about my character…”)

When I say I’m a third generation gamer, that’s third generation D&D.  I’m still “stuck in the age of THAC0,” in a lot of ways, and yes, I realised that I haven’t supported (monetarily) anything Dungeons & Dragons specific since that really bad interaction with 4th Edition.  (It had a lot of really, really neat ideas, but the OS was not backwards-compatible.)  I have adopted a little bit of absorbed 5th edition items just because, well, I’m on the internet, but it’s still worked into my mental structure.

My games have been mostly horror, and where killing things is almost never a source of xp for decades. We joke about “detect racism” being a spell in my games, but it hasn’t been hard to detect.  (“Just add Tiefling!”)  This is purposeful: if I want to play the kind of game where you kill everything that moves and loot everything you can carry, I’ll play Moria.   Black Lives Matter, and we don’t mean Drow.

Last year at BigBadCon I ran an AD&D adventure I’d written for a friend, about “Sun Scouts” who deliver the cookies the dark side espouses.  We mostly play AD&D amongst ourselves and our friends. (I want to keep them as friends, so we haven’t really pushed playing Amber.)  Our “family game” is AD&D.  There’s a lot of truth in the statement that we don’t play D&D because we aren’t playing “the rules” but let’s be honest, the DNA is there.

We do play other games, and even outside the sunk cost fallacy I am not suggesting abandoning the campaigns I’m in because there’s so much more involved — there’s the camaraderie, the history, the friend-group culture. I’m getting a lot more out of the gaming than the system.  The system isn’t even in the top ten considerations.

…but, I may stop playing D&D.  There’s been a lot of good reasons why. For me it will probably look like no longer running new games of it, of cautioning my friends and fellow adventurers about why they might consider the same, and maybe I’ll start focusing on writing scenarios for other games.

I mean, Nightlife is still– yeah, 40 years in the past.  [snort]

Venn Interstices Between Polyamory and Gaming

Developing rules for how to handle it, advocating for its social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.

[with thanks and comprehensive, constructive, and creative input from the bright and beautiful ladies (all of them!) of the G+ Community:A Game Room of Our Own]

Defined via Google as “the philosophy or state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time,” polyamory is not new.  Developing rules for how to handle it, advocating for its social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.  This article is not about that.

A “Role-Playing Game” is loosely defined as “a game in which players take on the roles of imaginary characters who engage in adventures…” Developing rules for games, advocating for their social acceptance, and forming suggestions to prevent abuse are things that have been made much easier by the internet.  This article is not about that.

Don’t look up “polyamory and gaming” on Google.  No, really.  Some of the options are just… detestable.1 On the other hand, there are many groups devoted to people who “are poly” and “into gaming.”  You may be able to simply reverse those labels – they “are gamers” and “into polyamory.”

It’s important to note that both subcultures value (if not require) creativity and having an open mind. The poly lifestyle is considered an “alternative” one, and that means guidance and education are hard to find and often one has to set up their own procedures and environment and suffer the consequences when one “player” is unbalanced in the relationship.  Role-playing games may have rules and constructs for coming to some agreements, but often one has to say, “Okay, let’s play it this way and if it’s not working we’ll speak up and make some other rule.” They are both improvisational experiences, and it is impossible to provide blanket consent to all of what might happen because no one really knows what all of their “hot buttons” are, and some are going to hold it against you when they realize that they really didn’t want to kill that dragon…

From outside, both groups seem somewhat caught up in obscure details and specialized vocabulary, along with fast, furious, and enthusiastic debates about how to define pieces of the culture. The similarities are intriguing as they relate to both positives and challenges.  That’s what makes it interesting, and that is what this article is about.

The first and obvious comparison is Scheduling. Time spent together is a currency of value that one rarely gets to bank with someone else.2 The issues collide in having time for yourself, time to handle your responsibilities, and having time to meet up with those who share your passions. It’s one of the biggest challenges in both poly and gaming.

When can we run our Monsterhearts game? When can we get together for lunch?  When will you spend time with this gaming group and when can you turn around and play with me?  Did you get the laundry done? Why are you always so tired?  Why can you spend until midnight rolling dice but if it’s just us you’re asleep before eleven?3 

Maybe more obvious on the poly side is Communication. It is critical and there are issues and challenges for both groups. Some of the corollary issues with this are (but are certainly not limited to) both written interaction rules, from “veto rights” to “gaming contracts.” In both you should always have an utter right to say, “No, we’re not playing this out.” Sometimes it’s the unwritten rules that trip you up, the things one player or partner seem to think all reasonable creatures understand and with which they agree, and you are like, “Really? The Tooth Fairy is real but not the Easter Bunny?” Relationships in polyamory and in gaming are an unmarked minefield and occasionally some accidental step makes everything explode.

Similarly, there are invisible rules and fences determining behavior and expectations, and justifiably emotional reactions when these have been broken.  Of course as is true for many things, and not just polyamory and/or gaming, things don’t get fixed unless you can talk about them.

Robert Sternberg’s components of a loving relationship include Intimacy, Passion, and Commitment.  His definition of Intimacy talks about the “specialness” of the relationship. The connections and closeness of the interactions between PCs and the gamers themselves really make a difference.  You’re spending time, you’re giving attention4, you’re listening5 to the participants, and you’re celebrating (if only by participation) the Passion (the ‘excitement’ and the ‘arousal’) they bring to the table.

Commitment is split by time between short and long term, depending on the short form of being able to become vulnerable, and the long term to commit to maintaining the adjustments of sharing and being willing to go deeper in the relationship.  “I’m willing to try a new game for every other Sunday, maybe a couple months, sure,” and “I’m in a 30 year AD&D game.”

We worry in games that someone else might take over our “niche” in the party and make us superfluous, and that same Fear of Competition often raises its ugly head in polyamory. One method many use to justify their poly leanings is in the problematic thought of it being “okay” because “You get different things from different people.” My primary partner likes women who are creative. Should I feel that my metamour is my rival because she’s creative?  Is it okay only because she’s an amazing artist with pen and brush, and my art uses bead and keyboard?   Is Storm any less of a hero because Thor is around and they’re both using lightning?6 Are you limited in being able to love only one person for one trait or play only one type of character?

Children. Those with them know what I mean, those without have their issues, too.  Children are a big deal. Taking care of children while dating, or at the table is the kind of stress that has broken otherwise strong relationships.  There are often conflicts and entanglements between who has the responsibility of being “on-call.”  This is one of the many places where it is important for people in both camps to understand the differences between fantasy and reality.

Too meta for you?  Here’s one you may be able to relate to on either side: you do not get to know (without asking) or control someone else’s feelings (PC or partner) unless you have some kind of superpower.  “You think I’m being hysterical,” and “You feel your hand reaching down to press the red button,” are both phrases of nuclear-level escalation.

Both require the ability to view things from another’s perspective, whether it’s being the dwarf girl who realizes she’s never going to be able to bang the elf, or empathising in that your metamour doesn’t have a place to call her own and thus is on an unstable foundation with your existing couple.

Both can be hard to explain to parents and other concerned people, and both can be pointed to by well-meaning family and friends as “the problem” when you are stressed.

The myths are similar, too. The idea that people with poly are “unsatisfied.”  Would you be considered “unsatisfied” if you played more than one game?  Amber DRPG and I are like… well, we’re separated right now. I’m not currently seeing Amber, and I think we had a dysfunctional relationship.  Just because I’m playing Nightlife does not mean I’m cheating when I play a game of Earthdawn.  Fate’s tempting me.  That’s all I can say about that.

There are of course challenges that can make both involvements miserable.  What makes a good polyamory situation and a good gaming situation include not setting people up to fail.  You might not want the kind of game or relationship where one person (be it GM or primary partner) tells you “what is what.”  Games and relationships are both way better if participants are clear on what they want with themselves and everyone else participating, and how to handle it when you discover something new about yourself, your partner, or your play style. Not deliberately making things hard for yourself or a member of your relationship for no reason except to ‘tweak’ them is essential in building the necessary trust. Understanding each other’s strengths and offering caution and support when one is likely to take bites that are just too big to swallow is a part of making both kinds of group work.

Sometimes people want in both, but don’t understand and/or care about the limits.  “We  meet at a house where there’s cats and children, and you’re violently allergic.”  “I like you. I really like you… but we’re not really open right now – we’re working on meeting the needs of some of our relationships.”

Sometimes someone insists on having all the attention to the extent that others feel their voices aren’t heard.  “`I think we should sneak around ba–’ `I STRIDE RIGHT IN LIKE I OWN THE PLACE’” is congruent with, “`Yeah, I mean, sure, you can go out…I just–’ `I STRIDE TO MY OTHER DATE LIKE I OWN THE PLACE.’”

Sometimes individuals involved in either don’t accept the same reality (or feel the same way) that the others do.  Not everything can be fixed on your own, and not everyone is able to fix it. Not everyone has the training or patience or `spoons.’

There’s the capability of both to become very dark, because sometimes someone is in power who doesn’t appreciate your ability to consent or choose for yourself.

Overall, both have their rewards. Heroism, love, honor, romance, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, True Love, miracles…  It can be hard to empathise with those who have different experiences.  It’s easy to fall into the social fallacy that what makes you happy would make anybody happy, if they only gave it a chance!   It’s okay to not want to play a game! It’s okay to be happy with monogamy (or even with no one at all)!

It’s okay to have given it a try and had it fail.  That failure helps make it interesting.  Pick yourself up, maybe try again.  That’s life. That’s love. That’s…gaming.

OSR? More like TANS!

Yes, I might just have dice older than you. That doesn’t make me wistful, just a hoarder.

Yes, I might just have dice older than you. That doesn’t make me wistful, just a hoarder.

So, if I’ve got it right, “OSR” can stand for a lot of stuff. “Old School Revival” or “Old School Roleplaying,” indicating these folks who pretty much just want to hit it and level up 1. I don’t mean to sound facetious, because that’s a lot of what my kids like in our home game, too… I don’t let them have that unless they talk to people first.  (And no, my son has to be a Paladin until he understands that TPKs started by a PC are only cool when everyone’s agreed.  We’ve got some rules around here.)

Yes, yes, I understand that there is a feel of it that may be saturated with nostalgia.  I see it as trying to link to the feeling of a group where everyone understands the rules, is ready to mince the fine details in fun, and we’re likely going to go kick some monster butt.

Continue reading “OSR? More like TANS!”

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I blame the paracingulate sulcus2.

Well, you know, at least in part.

There are several schools of thought on the deception of the brain when it comes to discerning reality, and one of them is that in general, we can’t.  Not just on a philosophical level (Are we someone else’s dream? Are we plugged into machines that are sending virtual worlds into our head? Is this all just a game?) but the idea that what we experience virtually (through gaming, or stories, or dreams) is the same as reality when it comes to the brain.  The mnemonic characteristics (the way we remember something) depends strongly on perceptual details in order to tell whether it’s an imagined memory or a matter of experience.

Let’s take a step to the side now, and look at our consumption of media. The shows we watch want to manipulate you. They want you to feel happy, and sad, and in the case of most news and commercial broadcasts, scared.  The general average for how much information we get via our senses 3 is that sight is (unless there is some sort of impairment) the most significant part of it, and thus we watch the lives of others go by.  We might also be listening to it – the music of a scene can help us anticipate what is going to happen, or what we should be feeling. Generally we can tell that a movie is a movie.

On the other hand if we take a console game, now we’ve got more senses involved. We’ve got touch, we’re adding proprioception 4, pressure, time, and often some virtual grasp of equilibrioception 5, at the least.  A console game is even more involving. It might make it harder for us to determine which parts of it are real, right?

One more step, and let’s look at gaming.  LARP, especially, has us living the experience. We’re involved with all of our senses.  Even at the table, we’re experiencing the lives of other people. It is an intimate experience, involved and intense as we are adventuring, possibly living more than we do behind our desktops, changing or saving the world(s), being bigger than life, out on the edge… heroes, villains, and very few of us spend our hours in the hobby simply being mundane.

So, with all of this in mind, we’re passionate about what we love.  We’re primed and programmed to be involved on a primal level. When you don’t like something I like, you’re this close to invalidating my intense experiences. Ever get your hackles up because someone called you a liar when you weren’t, and you suffered because you weren’t?

If you liked Second Edition AD&D, I’m calling you a liar.

Only as an example. 6 All of the investment you’ve made into a system is significant.  I won’t defend my system preferences to the death, exactly, but when you start talking smack about Nightlife, it might be to first blood.

Why am I blaming the paracingulate sulcus? Well, as we’re learning7 it has a pretty interesting role in the discernment of reality.  Gamers might just be born that way…wouldn’t that be amusing?

“It is an elaborate system of wish fulfillment…”

In #NOTALLROLEPLAYERS: A HISTORY OF RAPEY DUNGEON MASTERS, there is a sentence describing roleplaying that I’d like to highlight:

It is an elaborate system of wish fulfillment, in which scrawny, socially awkward teenagers can become bruising hulks who wield massive great axes and slay dragons sing[l]e-handedly.

Continue reading ““It is an elaborate system of wish fulfillment…””

Sandbox Stories and Skyrim

I like it when you play in the sand and you dig down and you get that cool almost-moist clay. Then you scoop out a chair and sit in the hot desert sun and don’t mind as much. Or, at least, that’s what I remember from growing up in Phoenix and playing in the school yard.

I also love the “sandbox” strategy where you have this awesome world and you can go and poke at it with sticks, or get drunk and score with chicks, or whatever your blackened orkish heart desires.


This is why my almost-10 year old has been engrossed with Skyrim for over 2 years and doing all sorts of things that don’t progress the story or her levels, but entertain her nonetheless. (I think there ought to be at least a trophy for cooking ALL THE THINGS. Not that my orkish chef-paladin wouldn’t do it anyway. I make an amazing Elsweyr Fondue.) I know there’s been some backlash here and there (some of the usual arguments are, “It makes the main plot no more than a side quest,” and “The players don’t know what to do,” which can have some legitimacy.)

On the other hand, what my daughter is loving about Skyrim is when she goes up to a guard who says, “There’s been a Dragon sighting on Mount Anthor,” and it adds the location to her map. This is what I think really shines about sandbox play, in that I, as GM, have given you a hundred different potential plot points, and if you don’t like any of them, you can create your own. Either you’ll take the quest about why the Sisters of Zene have all taken vows of silence recently, or you go make trouble at the tavern. Either is available and hopefully just as fun.

The problem I have is that it’s not the kind of story you want to bring to a convention, or any time you’re not looking at running an actual campaign.  It’s the kind of game I like to run because I want to know the stories other people have to tell using my toys.  I’ve just learned to understand how frustrating it is when you just want to solve the adventure and kill the boss and get the treasure.

It was the king who wanted to cheat death, by the way.  It’s the “the butler did it” of my necromancer stories.

6 Ways to Improve Your Group Interaction

Apparently people like quick and easy posts with numbers, so while I still stray on the teal deer lines, here’s something I whipped up from reading about a bazillion management articles this morning. 1


1) Really interact with the other PCs.

Seriously, even as a GM, ask questions of them: how, why, who … and allow room for description. (And as a GM? TAKE NOTES. Don’t be too quick to say, “But that wouldn’t have happened in Takatakastan.”) Same with NPCs; the more you ask, the more opportunity you have to flesh things out and make the game better for everyone.

2) Remember that everyone is better than you at something.

That’s what the idea of not overlapping your niches is about… so let someone else’s character shine at a scene. Better yet, help set them up to be awesome. If you know that the person who sits on the end makes great characters but is nervous playing them, can you prompt them a little?

3) Give positive feedback.

Compliment your fellow players on something they’ve done during the game that impressed you. Tell your GM about something that you liked about the game that you might want to see more of… Often we don’t give feedback and the GM is just thinking, “They came back to play again. They laughed a lot. I guess I’m doing something right…?” As a GM? Ask what they liked about it, or what they learned from it.

4) Show a little vulnerability.

Quiet or at least argue with your inner voice when you’re worried how you’ll look at the table. Tell people, “Okay, this might be a stupid idea, but what if…?” Let your character fail, because that’s going to be an awesome story. Ask the people around the table what your character should do in a similar situation.

5) Use all your resources.

Assume your opponents are smarter and better than you. Play to win, not just to deflect. Bring all your creativity: why are you still carrying that ten foot pole?

6) Don’t insist on playing nice.

Imagine the worst that will happen. If we all “just get along,” we become bland. Avoiding inconvenience and having everyone “be good” and “constantly aware of possible disparagement” is almost the same thing as ignoring what needs to be brought to attention.

Sometimes it seems there isn’t a real objective criteria.2 It’s hard enough to figure out IC versus OOC some times, so is your character a jerk, or are you trying to get women out of your game? Having fun conflict with another PC is a good thing… but it has to be fun. Remember that in a healthy group, we want everyone to feel like they have influence and that their values are respected.

Sometimes that takes conflict in order to find the real boundaries. This isn’t the same as suggesting people aren’t responsible for their behavior.

Oh, and always brag about your mistakes. That way you remember them and they become a legend.


A brief regard to gaming and sexuality.

I was responding to a post by the marvelous Andi regarding experiences of sexuality in gaming, and it started to get a bit long, so I thought, “Well, I should probably post about it, then.”

I’ve talked before about my first time having a relationship in a game wherein sex came into play, let alone sexuality. I didn’t even blink that it was two women characters.

Damascus (my “heart character” if I have one) loves fully and fluidly. In the Bete Noire campaign she got married to save one of the other characters, and it didn’t even occur to her (at least at first) that there was anything unusual in the fact that she was marrying another woman. In the assorted texts of her adventures since, she’s shown that same disregard for anything but consent and lack of (Uncle) Caine.

I’ve mentioned “being surprised” by my character’s sexuality, though. In the “Phoenix Exodus” campaign, I truly had no idea that my PC Jelica was attracted to women. Until a particular NPC really got to her and I realized it, it wasn’t even something relevant to the adventure, and it certainly wasn’t anything I had talked about in her otherwise extensive background. (The other players, however, were not surprised.)

My Skyrim character is attracted to men. It’s changed how I worked some in-game opportunities even though the culture doesn’t seem to make any big deal about it.

That’s all character, though. It’s background information in a lot of cases; it’s something that could be used as a hook, or could be ignored just as easily in a lot of scenarios. For me, unless someone really made a point out of it or if it got raised as some kind of boundary, I’d just presume that it’s all okay and available.

So what makes it interesting to talk about? I am not the type of gamer who gets into it to play themselves. The fact that Damascus and I have anything in common is almost coincidence (although in the years since I developed her there may have been some bleed…both ways. [grin]) It wouldn’t be fair to suggest that because I have the sexuality I have that all my characters are the same way.

What gets tricky is how it interacts between the people behind the characters. Not just in projecting between the people playing, which can be awkward, but I realized last year (2011) at ACNW that I kind of shy away from portraying the types of relationships that reflect anything “real” for me. I’ve had bad relationships in games and with gamers, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been at the table and even been a part of discussions where the metacommunication and what the characters were saying were both pointed. I’ve cried for the love of some of our long term fictional friends, and had my heart broken along with the character I was playing. Far from implying that I don’t make a genuine investment into my gaming, I think my not wanting to make people uncomfortable may have prevented me from exploring some opportunities.

If I have the kind of table where people can play who they want to play, and have their characters love who they want to love, why would I keep myself from having that same freedom?

Secrets of a Power Player [1]

[MaBNote: I’ve enlisted the LintKing to discuss some things from the player’s perspective. His first assignment is on names.]

[MaBNote: I’ve enlisted the LintKing to discuss some things from the player’s perspective. His first assignment is on, “Why do you have so many problems coming up with a name?”]

On The Difficulties of Names

Lots of characters know that Names have Power. In my favorite system, Earthdawn, the distinction between intelligent peoples like Humans, Elves, and Orks, versus animals and monsters, is that of being “Name Givers“. It’s the idea that while animals need, say, food, or shelter from the sun, people need to know that that’s Rabbit, and over there is Tree. People Name things, and in so doing, define them, shape them, and *master* them.

As a player, I have a difficulty with names. It’s not easy to Name a character. When I do find the right name, it’s often the final hook that gives me, well, the character. Differentiates *this* power-hungry Princess of Amber from the last five power-hungry Princesses of Amber I’ve played. And until I find the name, somehow, the character isn’t there. Sometimes I start filling in little details without a name, but it’s generally irrelevant – once I have the name, they all change anyway.

Names have…history. Personal histories: I’ve known a solid handful of Daves in my life, and only really liked one of them. Cultural histories: Adolph still isn’t an acceptable name for a boy. Heck, you still can’t use Judas and not expect people to wonder. Sub-cultural histories, too: our cat Corwin has connotations that most of my friends would get, and most of my family wouldn’t.

Names have…shapes. Everybody’s met someone and thought, `Funny; he doesn’t *look* like an Alexander.’ Tiffy comes with different expectations than Montclaire. These shapes can be played with. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an inherent contradiction. Ebenezer just isn’t a Fighter’s name – unless you’re doing it on purpose. Even completely made up names have these kinds of shapes, built into their length, and their vowel:consonant ratios, their first and last letters.

Names have Power. I strongly suspect that names shape real people. Not directly, really, but if nothing else, people will have expectations, and those must reflect or refract. But characters are far more malleable – the shape of the name *will* shape the character. Maybe I put too much into it, but for me, it’s always been the final piece.

Home Rules: On Spells

I love situations in games where I can develop spells based on the ingredients and events “at-hand” …

[this is also probably a “part one” of something I’ll come back to later]

I’m trying to work up some rules for Sorcerors for the Skin of Naranpelo, and it occurred to me that part of it is that I’m still too much in the space where magical theory slows me down as a designer.

See, a “spell” to me is a manufactured item of the scientific method being applied to magic. “If I match this ingredient and this chant and this hand movement, every time I am going to have this result.” This is classic AD&D territory. For game purposes, this is going to be how Alchemy works in Naranpelo.

It doesn’t feel like “magic” to me.

(This is also why I tend to play Clerics as having no real “spells” but the ability to 1) pray for divine (or divine messenger) intervention/invocation, 2) manipulate energies relating to the sphere of influence of their deity, and 3) handle basic “spiritual” details, from blessings/curses to consecrations/desecrations. Being a Cleric in one of my games generally allows you the ability to “put your faith” in the deity and let the GM decide how that’s going to come out based on your rolls/method of determination.)

When I run my amended AD&D games, a basic magic-user has a grimoire that contains all the basic spells for 1st through 3rd level. You still need to be able to Read/Write Magic for scrolls, to figure out traps and glyphs, and really, the journey to 3rd level spells generally is a matter of figuring out, “I know it says THIS, but it just isn’t making sense. That completely disregards the laws I know from the first level spells,” and that sort of thing.

(The advantage of being a high-level wizard in my campaigns is that you can actually use “conversational magic.” [grinning])

Continue reading “Home Rules: On Spells”