Friday, December 24, 2010

Death at the Table

I've been absent from this blog as of late, and it has in large part to do with the death of a friend and fellow gamer.

When Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons came out, I ended my long RPG hiatus, posted a campaign idea on Pen and Paper Games, and waited for nibbles from players.  The campaign was called "The Sea of Tears," and was set in post-flood water world, sans Kevin Costner. The bites on the line came rather quickly.  I met some really great people, among them a guy named Merlon. 

Merlon was dying.  He had good days and bad days.  Sometimes bits of his body worked, and sometimes they did not.  He had played RPGs for decades, but hadn't much since he had been sick.  Merlon knew he was dying and told me that he wanted to go out playing what he loved.

The new gaming group turned out to click really well.  We had a hoot island hopping and saving the day in the crumbling and soggy remnants of the Old Empire.  Merlon was one of those players who was a joy to role play with, breathing life into his character and  showing both the polished and rough sides.  He also played as an excellent tactician and loved the fiddly type classes with lots of knobs and buttons.  He was, however, obviously not healthy.  He would become very ill and not able to play sporadically and on very short notice.

After digesting the gravity of the situation, I found myself looking at the campaign and the game mechanics in a different light.  How does a DM prepare for something like that?  I've long been a proponent of not handing out XP if not earned.  I am not a friend to lazy or flaky players who just want to play whenever they feel like it.  But how do you handle a player who may be well one day and sick the next on a regular basis?  I mean, how do you avoid punishing someone for their body betraying them on a regular basis?

It turned out to be quite easy.  My first caveat - each character gets the same amount of experience points per session, whether they show up or not.  This led to being more lenient with retraining.  If a player wanted to try out a different feat or power, they could retrain at any time, assuming it made sense within the game.

I then opened the door to (what they used to call in Champions) nuclear accidents.  A player could completely rework their character - changing class, etc, as long as there was a good story mechanism for it.  I then just dropped most pretenses and let the players bring in a completely new character at the same level, should they get bored of their character.

Mechanisms that I had introduced to make sure that a sick player didn't feel left out and wouldn't get bored turned out to benefit everyone.  I was surprised that no one abused the very flexible character guidelines that I had set forth either. 

The Sea of Tears was the most rewarding campaign I've ever run.  We played for almost two years and covered two major story arcs - saving the world from extra planar horrors not once - but twice.  Guest players came in to share the experience, including Merlon's son and daughter. 

Eventually, however, we were done with that world.  The stories had been told and the heroes rode off into the sunset.  We then began to plan another campaign with another gaming system.  Shortly thereafter, Merlon fell into a coma.  Three month later, he was dead.

The planned game fell apart and the gaming group dissolved like mist in the night.  It's been a while since I've even talked to the guys.  Merlon was very much the glue that bound us together.  It makes me sad.

I've never really had to deal with the death of someone I knew that was so close to my age - and of someone whom I shared so much in common with.  I still have dreams about Merlon, and about his characters.  I miss him a lot.  I miss the spectacle and revelry we created around that bright and noisy table - for that brief moment - in this vast and dark universe. 

As the year comes to a close, I to reflect on my blessings, and knowing Merlon was definitely one of them.

Peace,
Arkhein

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Walk the Plank!

Okay, I've been on a pirtate kick recently, but the book I'm writing has nothing to do with pirates.  Still, when I feed the book into the 'I Write Like' website, it spits out this:



I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!



Arrr, he hearties.

- Arrrrkhein

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My First Four RPGs (Part One)

The decade of the 1970s didn't end that well for me.  We had moved to a po-dunk town in the foothills of the Ozarks, my parents got divorced, and I failed fifth grade.  When we moved back to Houston, I didn't know anybody and was very lonely.  The only thing that really held my interest at the time was my Star Wars action figures and Battlestar Galactica.

One day at school I saw a classmates with a strange book called Deities and Demigods.  He told me it was part of a game and I was fascinated.  I borrowed the book from him and read the cryptic stat blocks of gods and godesses and tried to figure out how the game worked.  Of course, Deities and Demigods had no rules in it, so I figured the game was something like chess, and each character had different moves on a chess board and dice were used to determine which player took a chess piece.  I began writing up the rules for this game of 'God Chess' I had in my head.  Due to the divorce, convincing my mother to by me a game printed in big expensive hardback books seemed an impossibility, so making a game of my own seemed like the reasonable thing to do.  Within a few hours I had sketched out the rules for a miniatures war game with dice - a concept I had never even heard of before.

My dreams were dashed the next day when my classmate gave me a brief overview of how Dungeons and Dragons was played.  Characters - dice with sides that I had never dreamed of - no board - a game you played in your mind.  Okay, well, so much for 'God Chess,' because this Dungeons and Dragons thing sounded a lot more interesting.  He also told me some very good news - I could buy a simple blue softcover book and some dice, and that's all I really needed.  Man, my mother never saw what was coming.  Poor lady.

The guy who introduced the game to me turned out to be pretty much of an ass, so I never played with him.  After my mother shelled out the money for the blue D&D book and some dice, I found another guy in my class who was interested in playing.  The first session we sat in his room and used construction paper to make pointy wizard hats with stars and moons on them.  Then we colored the dice with a crayon, since that was what you had to do back in those days.  The construction paper hats were hot and itchy, so we quickly ditched them.

My friend and I (because by the time you are playing D&D with someone, you must be friends) took turns being the Dungeon Master and we killed each other in horrible ways in dank caverns with various ochre jellies, green slimes, black puddings, and gelatinous cubes.  I'm sure we only used about 7% of the actual rules, but we had a hoot. 

Because of a simple blue book and some funny shaped dice and a friend to play with, the stresses of family disintegration and academic failure eased up a bit.  Of course, Dungeons and Dragons was not some kind of panacea to cure all of my ills, but it let me take a breather.    I have a very warm place in my heart for Gary and Dave and all of those other people who allowed me to forget my worries and actually have time for fun.

- Ark

(An interesting side note - I heard about GEN CON shortly thereafter.  I sooooo wanted to go.  It was a burning dream for a long time, but I could never assemble the staggering amount of money to go, or get an adult to agree to go with me.  I never made it to GEN CON.  However, I did attend my first gaming convention this year - Reaper Con - with my son.  Four days of games and minis - I had a blast.  Maybe I'll make it to GEN CON one day.  Maybe . . . one day . . . )

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rehab for Roleplayers

Don't worry - this is not about reprogramming roleplayers who have been brainwashed by the Cult of Gygax. It's about writing.

I was brought up by a reading fanatic (hi Mom) who had me reading wheelbarrows full of science fiction and fantasy at a young age. Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Lewis, and Tolkien were on my reading list shortly after I had finished the Seuss books. My first instinct in being whisked away to new worlds was to be just like the authors whose books I so admired.

I drew many Tolkien-esque maps, invented long histories of kings and serfs, and at the age of nine tried to work out whether a planet could rotate around two binary stars in a figure-eight pattern because I had an interesting story idea for the blue-skinned inhabitants of such a world. The biggest problem wasn’t coming up with the ideas - it was actually writing a story.

The first story I worked on - well - it turned out to be a page long list of the monsters that inhabited my world. So much for high drama, but it was a good learning experience. I continued at it, eventually writing ultra-violent espionage short stories that were passed around by my friends in high school, and topping it off after college by writing a full sci-fi epic about a mentally imbalance Islamic computer programmer that attempts to save the galaxy from an invasion of unstoppable space crabs.

I entered the IT field when it eventually sank in that I was going to starve to death trying to make my sole source on income, but I am still rather miffed that I didn't make it as an author. What I write now tends to be only for a small audience - my gaming group. I like to write interludes - short scenes between gaming sessions - to move the plot along and provide information that no one really wants to sit and listen to me drone on about at a table.

An author on DeviantArt that I admire, salshep, recently began posting a parts to an article entitled 'Rehab for Roleplayers.' The title intrigued and confused me, so I had to take a look. The first sentence hit a nerve.

"I can identify a habitual roleplayer from fifty paces. Those who've been spooked by my asking whether they're a roleplayer within ten seconds of reading their fiction will know what I'm talking about. "

Oh great, I thought, she's going to bash role-players. Well, turns outs that poking fun at geeks is not the subject of the article. It's about bad habits and traps that role players get into when trying to write a proper piece of fiction. The article has given me a lot of food for thought. Sure, I have sat down with Strunk and White trying to hunt down crappy prose it my work before, but salshep, well; she really knows role players and goes for the throat. It's like she knows me. Frightening.

So anyway, all of this blathering just to recommend an article. I do recommend it for any writer, but gamers can get the most out of it.

Rehab for Roleplayers, by salshep
Introduction: How to Spot a Drow Illusionist
Part One: Your Syntax Has Been Eaten A Grue
Part Two – If It Walks Like RP and Quacks Like RP, Then It Is Probably Not a Novel.
Part 3 – Echolalia Jones and the Thesaurus of Doom

- Ark

Monday, July 19, 2010

Lessons

I've always loved gaming. Except, of course, for those times I didn't. I remember vividly that third grade match in the school chess championship - the agony of watching my white pieces being whittled slowly down by the black; the desperate escape attempt by my wimpy king with a queen, two rooks, and a bishop in hot pursuit; and then trying to hold back the tears as my little world crumbled in checkmate. Okay, so I haven't always loved gaming. There have been times when my hatred for a game has outshone the brightness of the sun. 

But I do keep coming back. Maybe not to chess, exactly. I gravitated towards table-top role-playing games in my preadolescence, and they still thrill me after all of these years. The standard concepts of winning and loosing were thrown out the window and that old childhood idea of 'play' came back into my vocabulary. There were high and lows and successes and failures, but nothing so disheartening as a 'loss.' RPGs helped me learn to enjoy gaming for the experience itself - interacting with others, forming plans and executing them, and the excitement of not knowing the outcome to a particular decision.  

I've learned to appreciate the more competitive games. I even war-game on occasion. Nothing, however, compares to role-playing and those curious folks who enjoy it. I suppose when I'm in a nursing home I'll be drumming the halls, looking for brittle, hunched people like myself to roll dice with. That sounds like a perfect way to conclude a life of game-play.  

- Ark