Category Archives: Gaming

I’m a role-playing geek, even though I’m in my mid-30’s. Occasionally I talk about role-playing games, and sometimes other types of games.

Of Dice and Me

Polyhedral Dice
Many-sided dice for funsies

I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since before it was cool.

No, seriously. Back in the 80s, I was a member of my high school’s unofficial D&D club — just me and a few friends rolling dice, checking the results against numbers on character sheets, trying to figure out what we were doing, all in the back room of the library. Given that this was a Catholic high school, it’s kind of surprising that we were allowed to do this. This was the mid-80s, as I mentioned, at the height of the Satanic Panic, when any sign of deviation from cultural norms was seen as part of a vast Satanic conspiracy to… something. D&D, as a thing that was done with nerds and which involved people telling each other stories that involved magic, was targeted in that moral panic, and plenty of kids around the country saw their dice and books go up in flames.1

I didn’t get seriously into D&D, though, until I hit college. There, I met a guy whom I shall refer to only as M—, who had been playing serious D&D for years. I decided I wanted to be Dungeon Master, and M— taught me how to create compelling stories and create immersive worlds. I enjoyed playing in his games, and he enjoyed playing in mine, even if we did have differences of opinions in how kobolds should be portrayed. We fantasized about being professional Dungeon Masters, but at the time, there was no such thing. You couldn’t make a living at such a hobby, unless you were named Dave Arneson or Gary Gygax or Steve Jackson.

During college, I spent a lot of time playing Dungeons and Dragons. M— and I would dedicate hours to plotting out the games we ran, and we would run campaigns for our friends that lasted months, some even years. Why, when I learned I could take a quarter off from school without a gap in financial aid, I did so, and spent a majority of that time playing D&D games and running them.

Man, I had a blast those days.

Cover of AD&D Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide
You know I went right out and bought this

When the Second Edition of D&D came out, I was thrilled. I bought all the books (including the Dungeon Master Guide, aka, the DMG). I played more games. I ran more games. I had a core group of friends that I played with regularly. Even with M- left Davis, I stuck with that core group.

Over the years, friends came and went, my core group of players and DMs changed, but the games went on. I had girlfriends who were heavily into the game as well, and that certainly fed my passion, and girlfriends who weren’t very much into it.

D&D Second Edition Council of Wyrms Box Sex
Council of Wyrms. I so wanted to play this, but never got around to it.

That’s not to say I was averse to other role-playing games. For awhile, I ran a game of Vampire: The Masquerade and the interlinked games published by White Wolf Press (I honestly don’t know if they’re still around, and at the moment I’m too lazy to look them up). For three years, possibly more, I ran a Vampire Live Action Role Playing game (LARP), which consumed all my emotional, social, and creative energy.

When the 3rd edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out, I switched to that from second edition, then from 3rd to 3.5. But I never could get into 4th edition; to me, that edition minimized the role-playing aspect of the game, which was what had always thrilled me about it, and focused on the battle aspects. I’ve since heard that 4th edition really was good, but by then I had moved on to Pathfinder, a new RPG system that was, at first, essentially D&D version 3.75. Now, the 2nd edition of Pathfinder is out.

It’s been years since I’ve run a role-playing game2. The pandemic has put a pause on that aspect of my creative life.

Roll20 logo
Roll20. The future of gaming?

But now… Now I feel the old urge kicking in. A few months ago I started plotting out a new Pathfinder game, with (of course!) pirates. And since we’re still in a pandemic3 my six players and I are meeting virtually, through a Virtual Table Top (VTT) called Roll20. I’ve heard good things about this site, and while I’ve never GMed using it, I’ve played in a game that uses Fantasy Grounds, another VTT. So this will be an interesting experience, to say the least.

In all the years that I’ve run D&D campaigns, I’ve never once used a pre-created campaign setting; they’ve all been homebrew games with settings and mythologies and stories that I’ve created myself. I’m kind of proud of that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with running a pre-created campaign, it’s just not my style.

Anyway. That’s a brief history of me and gaming. I’ve had so many creative joys, made so many great friendships through D&D and other role-playing games that it’s hard to imagine life without them. There was a time when I considered those days and months and years wasted, times when I thought I could have been writing instead, but fortunately saner heads prevailed and convinced me that none of that time was wasted.

So. How are you?

[A-Z] D is for D&D

DnDPH Yesterday’s post about kobolds made me think about my old Dungeons and Dragons days. I used to play a lot of D&D. I mean a lot. I played a little in junior high and high school, but I really became addicted in college. My friends and I would play for hours on end, several days a week. When I lived with my friend Matt, he and I spent hours and hours discussing the philosophy of gaming, its mechanics, its dynamics, and so on. I even took a quarter off from college in my sophomore year to play even more D&D (well, that and to refresh my brain that had become stale on too much… well, whatever it was I was studying at the time). In short, I really loved the game.

While immersed in D&D, I discovered that I really enjoyed being the Dungeon Master (DM), the guy who created the settings that the players would explore and interact with, and who would create the storylines and plots that drove each game session. During college — and for many years after college — D&D and other role-playing games — was where most of my creative energies were focused. I didn’t do a lot of writing in those days. I created wizards and dragons and empires and desperate moral dilemmas for my players to muddle through. There was a time when I considered those years “lost” in terms of my creativity, since so much time I spent playing and DMing I could have spent writing. However, it was recently pointed out to me that those creative energies were not wasted after all; I provided thoughtful and challenging entertainment for dozens of players over the years. When I moved on to running Live Action Role Playing games, the scope of the sessions expanded from five or six to several dozen at a time. Creating storylines and plots that so many people could get involved in and enjoy was challenging and plenty of fun, but exhausting.

These days, I don’t run nearly as many games as I used to. Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for me to run two separate campaigns at the same time, one session per campaign per week (yes, that’s two or more gaming sessions of six to seven hours each per week). Nowadays, because all of us players have lives and jobs and families that demand attention, the gaming sessions are much more sparse, with weeks or even months between individual sessions.

I used to bemoan those years when my creativity could have gone into my writing. These days, though, I’m pretty grateful for those years. I made a lot of great friends. I learned a lot about storytelling. And so even though I’ve moved on from Dungeons and Dragons (I play Pathfinder now), I’ll always be grateful to that game and all its myriad editions, and to the time I spent with it, and to the people I shared it with.

Edited to add: I don’t know how I could have failed to mention this, but I actually met my wife during a Dungeons and Dragons game. So that’s pretty cool too.

Gaming! Huzzah!

Over the past weekend, I ran two Pathfinder games (Pathfinder, in case you’re not familiar with it, is basically version 3.75 of Dungeons and Dragons). I had such a blast that I’ve decided I want to do it again, but on a larger scale. So, I’m starting a new campaign, beginning with a single adventure on Sunday, July 21, at 2:00 p.m., at our house. Characters would begin at 6th level, and the style would be very heavy role-playing with not much in the way of combat or treasure-hunting. Newcomers are more than welcome. The time is flexible, but the date really isn’t.

Anyone interested? Let me know in the comments, or email me.

 

A Thought I Had

I never finished running The Hole, a D&D adventure that I started a few years ago. It was meant to be a one-session dungeon crawl, though, as usual for the games I run, it ended up not finishing in one session. And, unfortunately, we never got a chance to finish.

So I want to run that game again. Any players interested? Even if you played in Part One the first time around, you never actually got to any of the real secrets, and besides, the play will undoubtedly be vastly different a second time around.

Grrrraararrararrggghhhhhhh

Jennifer and I just finished playing House of the Dead: Overkill, the latest in the House of the Dead franchise of zombie shoot-em-up games available for the Wii. The whole series of games has featured the finest in voice-over acting, character rendering, and realistic mayhem. Or, you know…. Not. Basically, we just enjoy shooting zombies and watching the green goo splatter everywhere.

House of the Dead: Overkill is sort of a Quentin Tarantino meets Rob Zombie thing, with allusions to plenty of old monster movies and some imagery that was, frankly, a tad on the disturbing side. The story came with some twists and bits of humor that, amazingly enough, surprised me and made me laugh out loud. The final scene, with the two agents discussing the meaning of the whole situation, just made the two of us guffaw with hilarity. There’s plenty of self-parody in this game,which was hilarious and… Well, it just made the game more fun.

Weekend Updates

Over the weekend, Checkers spent most of her time lurking in one spot or another in the library; for a couple of full days, her favorite spot was behind the books on the bottom shelf of one of the bookcases. I took to calling her the Lurker in the Library, which appealed to the Lovecraft fan in me. However, she started doing much better yesterday, to the point where she was relaxed enough to come out for Jennifer when she came into the room, and to sit and actually play with us for a bit when we dangled string in front of her and gave her skritches on her head. She also purrs loudly and is interacting with us more. She prefers Jennifer’s company to mine, but I think she’ll loosen up more over the next few days.

Most of the other cats still don’t care. Tangerine’s more interested in Checkers’s food. Azzie likes to hang out in the kitty carrier that we brought Checkers home in. Rosemary coudn’t care less about the presence of another tortoiseshell in the house. We don’t know how Zucchini feels, and probably never will. Sebastian, however, finally got around to expressing his outrage with hissing and yowling, and Checkers hissed back at him. We’re still keeping her isolated, so we won’t have to police that situation for awhile.


This past weekend was DunDraCon. I meant to go on Saturday and Sunday, but Saturday I ended up sleeping until 2:00 in the afternoon, at which point I just kind of figured there wasn’t any point, so I spent the rest of the day at home. Sunday, after Sunday School (third session of the Da Vinci Code class), I drove down so I could spend a few hours there. I hung out with K. until he needed to get set up for his game, then went to the open game room and played a few games with C. and some other random person he had met. After that, went to K.’s Galactic Champions game. It was already full up with players, so I didn’t get to play, but I did get to assume the role of the over-the-top supervillain for a bit, and that was quite fun. K. is an outstanding GM; if gaming were a profession like law or medicine, he would be among the most respected practitioners. Alas, it is not.Oh, I also made a few purchases; the 6th Edition of Call of Cthulhu (and I’m still planning on running a game someday); the new color edition of Give Me the Brain (I’m kind of disappointed that it’s a full-color glossy card game now, instead of the cheesy card-stock black-and-white Cheap Ass format that it has been in the past); and Cheap Ass Games’s Kill Doctor Lucky. I also got a T-shirt which reads, “Innsmouth Emergency Medical Services”, which is funny to me at least (see the image below).

So, all in all, a pretty decent time at the con. I wish I’d gotten to spend some more time there, since I have a pile of games that I enjoy but that I never get to play (the other two games in the McFries trilogy, for example, as well as ChronoNauts, Burn Rate, Cthulhu 500, and others). Perhaps next year.

Focusing

I’ve been trying to figure out why I keep thinking of this past year as the year that I finally got serious about writing. I’ve been writing all my life. Sometimes quite seriously. But something clicked during the summer, and now I feel focused and committed.

I’ve been reading all my life; I’ve talked to a lot of people who can remember when the words “clicked” for them and they were able to, for the first time, understand what the words were saying. Me, I can’t ever remember not knowing how to read; my mother says I was born knowing how to read. When I was an adult literacy tutor, this became an issue for me, because it was hard for me to empathize with adults who couldn’t read (I got over it, though, and got to be a pretty good teacher).

When I was about six I took it into my head to start writing books. So I wrote a few short little stories, illustrated them myself with crayon, and stapled them. I remember writing something called “Tunnel to the Moon” and another one called “Tornado in the Sky”. When I visited my mother a few years ago, I found that she’d kept “Tunnel” in her cedar chest. I’m pretty sure she still has that.

In my pre-teen years I also wrote a series of mystery short stories about a private investigator named Fizziwinker (I have no idea where that name came from, and I’ve never figured out if it was his first name or his last name). I thought they were serious adult mysteries; turns out they were juvenile comedies. I had one fellow offer to publish them as a book for children, but I was determined to published them in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, these stories continue to languish in my desk drawer. Someday, I’m sure, I’ll take them out and dress them up and try to publish them as juvenile stories. But at the time, I was really embarrassed.

In high school, I kept writing a lot. I still have most of the stories I wrote from this period: “Eradicator”, “Courage is an Accident” (another one my mother kept in her cedar chest), “Derelict”, “An Authority on Everything” (written when I was convinced I was destined to be the next James Joyce — that phase lasted about two weeks, until I finally tried to read Finnegan’s Wake), and others. I was really strongly encouraged by my high school English teachers, one of whom wrote this in my senior year yearbook: “You are without a doubt the best writer it has been my privilege to teach”. During that time I even made half-hearted attempts to publish; I collected quite a collection of rejection slips; and, as I’d heard many writers do, I even wallpapered my bedroom with them.

So what happened in college?

At the risk of sounding like I’m bragging, I blame my loss of focus on the fact that I was good at just about everything I set my mind to in high school. My AP biology teacher told me I was one of the finest biology students she’d had the honor to teach. My history teacher told me I was great at what I did. And so on. I was in love with biology and went to UC Davis determined to be a doctor.

In college, though, I found that chemistry killed me. If I’d been smart, I would have switched my major to English and been done with it, but I was determined that I was going to stick with the sciences in some way. Somehow, though, I wound up getting a degree in philosophy, while taking as many electives as I could. I couldn’t take seriously the idea of doing graduate work in philosophy, so I floundered for a long time. I ended up focusing my creative energies on role-playing games, and became known in my town as one of the best game masters around.

So I lost focus on my writing for a lot of years. Now I’ve refocused, and even made a list of writing goals which should see me through the next decade or so. And somehow I’ve managed to stay focused for several months now. I think that part of this comes from the realization that my creative energies have been focused on my gaming for so many years. And as my friends continue to grow up and mature and take on responsibilities like families and going back to school, they simply have less time to commit to the kind of massive storylines and fifteen year plot arcs that I like to create. But the huge storylines and plot arcs are still yammering in my brain, desperate to be told.

I came to rely on role-playing games as my primary creative outlet, I realize. They’re great for getting a small group of people to think and enjoy themselves and my storylines for a few hours at a time. The risk of rejection is low, too: after all, my players kept coming back for me, which felt like success to me. And it was good to have the instant gratification and feedback that I could get from running a great game. Right after finishing up a game session I could count on my players to tell me what they liked about it, and I could take their suggestions. But best for my approach to things, I found I didn’t have to work too hard on making the stories work; I’m good enough at improvisational storytelling so that I can run an epic twelve-hour game session with little more preparation than a few lines scribbled on a piece of paper, and perhaps a few minutes to review the previous session.

In other words, running a role-playing game is simply not hard work for me, and that’s what attracts me to it.

Writing is harder work. To complete my massive storyline and my fifteen-year plot arc, I have to actively sit down for a couple of hours every day and write. I have to plot, plan, conceive, envision, write, and rewrite. The risk of rejection is greater: I could spend years working on the books of The Terassic Cycle, only to find at the end that no one is willing to publish them — or, if they’re published, that no one is willing to buy them and read them. The vacuum in which a writer exists is much deeper than the vaccum which envelopes a game master.

And I have discovered that one of my strengths as a gamemaster has proven to be probably my greatest weakness as a writer. As a gamemaster, I’m able to sit back and let the players drive the story, while my NPC’s are generally fairly passive (except for the villains, of course). The heroes really are my players, and I think that this makes me a very good gamemaster. Unfortunately, my tendency toward passive storytelling means that the characters in my stories are fairly passive, and events end up just happening to them. The characters are not played by other people, they’re played by some part of myself which I’m not used to listening to. Even the story I think of as my most recent success, “Burying Uncle Albert”, suffers from this flaw. Fotunately, I at least know that it’s a weakness of mine, and that I need to tune in to that part of myself where my characters are walking and talking, and pay attention to it.

Ultimately, though, I think that the rewards from writing are greater than the rewards from gamemastering. If my books are published, then the stories I tell will be appreciated by more than the five or six people who play in my games. And, perhaps, if my writing is good enough and appreciated widely enough, then someday, someone somewhere might just develop a role-playing game based on the worlds in my head.

Writing Update #4

It’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these. For one thing, I’ve been working on the Goddamned Assignment for my Ethnic Collections Development class, which took up too much of my time before I finally finished it and turned it in on Sunday afternoon (I don’t expect a good grade on it; I worked my ass off, but I never really figured out what the professor wanted, so who knows?).

I’ve also been reading The Dark Tower, the last book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Say what you will of Stephen King and what you will about your estimation of my critical thinking skills and ability to appreciate good writing, but I think Stephen King tells a hell of a good story. Reading this book reminds me of when I watched The Return of the King last year; it’s the end of something I’ve been enjoying for years (in the case of the Dark Tower series, nearly twenty years), and nothing after it will even come close to comparing. Oh, sure, there will be good, even oustanding, movies and books afterward; but anything King writes after this will simply be afterthoughts. It’s no wonder, to me, that King is planning on retiring after this; the Dark Tower storyline has been the Big Story which has driven most of his fiction since 1982 (and possibly before), and with its completion, the story is done. He’ll either retire, or simply take his writing in an entirely new direction. King is a good writer. He’s also popular, though, which means it’s fashionable to discredit his writing abilities.

I did manage to do some writing over the past few days, though. I’ve added about a thousand words to “The Winds of Patwin County”, though I haven’t worked on the Outer Darkness outline at all. My writing is suffering because of my reading.

Some of the things that King has written in The Dark Tower, as well as some of what he wrote in On Writing, has gotten me to thinking about the creative process in general. I never took a course in aesthetics when I was getting my degree in philosophy, but I understand that one school of thinking in that field posits that creative ideas are not truly invented by artists or writers, but are, actually, “discovered”. The stories and the ideas are already out there; it’s the artist or the writer who brings form and expression to these stories and ideas. This is the sort of thing which Michelangelo had in mind when he said that he could see the sculpture in the rock, and all he needed to was chip away to obscuring stone.

One could argue that this notion seems to be supported by findings in comparative mythology: the same themes and ideas and motifs seem to crop up over and over throughout the world, across cultures, and throughout history. I think that the value of this observation to the notion of pre-existing ideas is weak at best, but it’s an interesting idea to ponder.

Many writers — including King, Tolkien, and many others — have said that they feel more like a conduit for the stories that they write and tell than creators. And just about every writer I’ve ever spoken to or read about has said that they often feel like the story “takes over” from time to time, or that the characters have taken over the story. More than one writer has warned that the stories which the writer tries to force too much control over are usually the worst. Of course, other writers have cautioned against going along too much with “what feels natural”, because what feels natural is often just the first thing that comes to mind; and the first thing that comes to mind is usually a cliché of some sort. I’ve noticed in my own writing that “what comes naturally”, though, is usually different from “what comes first”, and that what comes naturally is usually a lot longer in coming. Stories do have their own flow, and it takes awhile to discover what that flow is. And, of course, no story is ever perfect in its telling. God knows I’ve never managed to write a story which captured perfectly the tale I’m trying to tell.

At any rate: I’m not the first person to make this observation, and I certainly won’t be the last.

Some stories, I think, are simply parts of a much larger story that the writer is tapping into. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was simply a small part of a much larger history of Middle Earth that Tolkien felt he was tapping into. George Lucas’s Star Wars films are a part of the much larger Star Wars milieu that he and his fan base have been building over the last thirty years or so. And most of Stephen King’s novels have been a part of the overall Dark Tower story.

I’ve been trying to pull off the same thing myself. Most of the role-playing games that I’ve run over the past fifteen years have been a part of the overall Terassic Cycle story which I hope to wrap up this year, and I do plan on writing a series of novels which tell that story. I do wish, though, that I could have done what King did and write a couple dozen novels which all tied in somehow to the Terassic Cycle but which each stood as good novels on their own merit as well, but that would have required me starting my writing career about fifteen years ago. A little late now.

Of course, I know that I should be spending more time writing than writing about writing. So I’ll get to it now.

Occasionally Nostalgic

Last weekend, I ran what was probably the third to last session of Worlds’ End, the Dungeons and Dragons game that I’ve been running for Jennifer and a couple of friends of mine. Recently, I found a picture that one of the players, my friend Evilpheemy drew; it was dated July 2002, which means I’ve been running this campaign for just about two years now. Seeing that surprised me. Last weekend’s game was one of the best of this campaign, and I’m looking forward to the next session.

I’m a nerd. I suppose I should admit it. A true geek. I’m thirty-six years old, and I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons since I was eighteen, and for most of that time I’ve been a Dungeon Master, inventing worlds for my players and running the games. And during most of that time, I’ve been running almost all of my games in a single huge milieu. The storyline has grown gigantic over the past thirteen years (the oldest notes I’ve found for this particular setting date back to January 1991); I’ve run fantasy games that are part of it, science fiction games, and modern day games, all part of this massive story arc. The end of my current campaign, the one called Worlds’ End, will probably be the end of this massive storyline, as I try to tie up a lot of loose threads for my current crop of players (none of whom played in that game of 1991) and bring closure to a story arc which has been building in my head for thirteen years.

Of course, even as the storyline comes to a close for my gaming career (I have ideas for other worlds and other storylines, in case anyone’s worried that I’m going to give up gaming altogether), it refuses to die. It’s mutating now, and I think it’s time to actually set it down on paper and see if I can’t write a few publishable novels out of it. I’ve decided that after I’m finished running Worlds’ End, I’m going to spend a year plotting out the entirety of The Terassic Cycle, and then I’ll write the damned thing. Maybe that will purge it altogether.

But even until I get around to writing that, I’m also working on another novel: The Outer Darkness, something I’ve been exploring with Evilpheemy and a mutual friend of ours for at least five years now. Again, it’s something that needs to be written.

All of which is backstory, I think. You see, Jennifer’s headed out tonight to spend some time with some on-line acquaintances that she’s meeting in person for the first time. I decided that while she was gone, I’d head over to Borders in the next town over, and spend some quality time with my laptop working on The Outer Darkness. After that, I went to get some sushi for dinner, and while I was headed out of town, I saw Evilpheemy’s girlfriend N. walking down E Street. She and I go back a ways; she played in Underground Puppeteers and Underground Puppeteers Book 2, a couple of Live Action Role-Playing games that I ran for a few years. I gave her a ride back to her apartment, and we sat in the parking lot and chatted for half an hour or so. It was good to do that. I enjoy her company, and I wish her and Evilpheemy the best.

Anyway, talking to N. made me feel nostalgic for all the friends I made while running Underground Puppeteers. I keep in touch with some of them, others I’d like to talk with more often. And, of course, thinking of those friends made me think of the friends I had who played those Dungeons and Dragons games back in college, close to twenty years ago. I thought tonight that I’d call some of them up — including D., whom I traveled in Ireland with back in 2001 — but none of them were at home.

I’ve recently come to think of my life as a series of chapters. There’s the high school chapter, for example. College was a chapter in and of itself, and that particular chapter lasted until about 1994 or so. Then there was another chapter marked mostly by floating without any real focus. Then a new chapter began in 1996, and ended in 2000 or so. The current chapter is still ongoing. Each chapter was marked by a distinct set of friends that I’ve loved and cared for, and I’m happy that even as the chapters change and go forward, I’ve managed to hang on to some of those friends. Though I must admit that when I realize that I’ve known some of my friends (like D., or Aristo#), friends who’ve been there since the beginning of the college chapter, for close to twenty years, I start freaking out. Do friends that you’ve known for seventeen or eighteen years count as “old friends”? Can I really be old enough to have “old friends”? Surely I can’t be.

Sometimes, it seems that the saddest thing of all is that you can’t go back and re-live some of those earlier chapters.

[For the sake of more nostalgia, you can check out the website for Underground Puppeteers, which I discovered is still up; apparently GeoCities doesn’t take pages down even if they haven’t been updated for five years. Here’s the link: Underground Puppeteers. And here is a page with pictures from the very last session of that game.]