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.

Casting Off

Well, in just a few days I’m supposed to start up the playtest campaign for Outer Darkness, assuming I have any players. It’s been many years since I’ve run a campaign in any game system; there was a time when I was running two or three campaigns simultaneously, with two or three game sessions per week. I could never really do one-shot games; they’d always turn into full-blown campaigns.

Running a role-playing game is a lot like writing. When you run a one-shot game, with a definite beginning-middle-end structure, it’s like telling a short story. When you run a full campaign, it’s more like writing a novel with complex plot threads that can run every which way and sometimes completely out of your control. When you write a novel, though, you at least maintain a small amount of control over the actions of the characters (though any novelist will tell you that the characters eventually do take over the story); but in a role-playing campaign, you have no such control over the players and their characters.

But a long-term campaign, with complicated plot threads and deeply developed player characters and fully expressed villains and taking place in worlds with complex histories and intricate structures, really is a thing of beauty, in its own way. My old roommate Cavematt and I used to wax philosophical for hours, lamenting that it was so sad that only a few people could ever participate in the joy that was a long term RPG campaign. Sure, you can write down everything that happens and perhaps even market your own game system based on the campaign setting that you’ve created, but the experience of the campaign itself is a once in a lifetime event.

For ten years I ran a campaign which I simply called the Moon Dragon Campaign. This was a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with three major story arcs, and dozens of side stories and explorations into the deep past of the setting and the far future and even into far reaches of space. Because my style of Dungeon Mastering can be so haphazard and cavalier at times, elements of stories which I introduced when the first sessions of the game started back in 1987 could be re-introduced as major plot threads in 1992. I ran a "companion adventure" for some friends of mine a few years ago, a campaign which took place in the same world, on a separate continent. And one of the most important plot threads that developed from the very first sessions took on a life of its own and even became the central storyline of a Live Action Role Playing game that I ran just over two years ago. Maybe someday I’ll even reveal to my players what it was the Malayik Jyran really was up to all those years, and why he was banished from his plane of being in the first place.

In my own mind, Moon Dragon really was the pinnacle of my gaming career: a single storyline which saw me through eleven years of table-top gaming and at least one year of live action gaming. It was such a rich storyline for me: its central elements could drive the adventures of a couple of rogues in the rival towns of Slash and Smash on opposite banks of the Sles River, or the intricate machinations of beings so powerful that their consciousnesses could be annihilated and spread throughout all of time and space and they’d still be able to manipulate a group of vampires in 20th century America to do their bidding.

I admit that sometimes the stories do tend to get out of control. While the group Helter Skelter was an intriguing set of villains for the last Vampire LARP I ran, I was never entirely sure exactly what they were there for or how they managed to show up in my campaign setting. At least one of their members, Buddy, has had an impact on the character I’m playing in Book of Dreams now.

See? The madness never ends.

And in a couple of days, I’m going to start it all over with a new campaign setting. Even though Evilpheemy and I have been developing this setting since 1997, and I’ve got about fifteen years of Game Mastering experience under my belt, I’m nervous about it. It’s almost like stage fright. For the first time in all that time, I’m running a new story in an entirely new setting, using a rule system that I’m only vaguely familiar with (my staff in Underground Puppeteers, the last LARP I ran, were always frustrated with me because I never actually mastered the rules of the games that I ran). I’m going to feel like I’m adrift in an entirely new worldset, a story arc which is both familiar to me, but also entirely new. The massive story arc which drives the Outer Darkness hasn’t really been play-tested before, even though Evilpheemy and I have both run short one-shot playtests to hammer out rules and mood; this is the first time the driving story arc will be expressed, and I admit to being somewhat nervous about it.

And I haven’t run a table-top game in at least four years, really. Oh, I’ve tried here and there to do minor things, but nothing has really taken off. So yeah, I’m feeling a bit of stage fright too.

But I’m confident that it will work out. My main concern is that my cavalier and haphazard approach to storyline development will overwhelm the driving story arc of Outer Darkness, if that makes sense. It must be similar to the feeling that the writers of Enterprise have: I’m sure that they’d love to do galaxy-spanning storylines, but they’re restricted in that so much of the Star Trek universe has been so thoroughly developed over the past thirty years, and the consistency of the central story arc has to be maintained.

I’m sure that only a handful of my readers will actually care about this entry. But even if you don’t: Wish me luck.

Dribblings

The other night I went to go hang out with Evilpheemy, which I don’t do as often as I wish I could. Sadly, we both have lives, which sometimes gets in the way of these things. We went and ate sushi along with his three-month-old daughter, who was amazingly well-behaved throughout the meal, and then went back to his place to shoot the breeze and ponder the creative project we’ve been trying to put together for over three years now. To his credit, Evilpheemy has been doing a lot more on this project than I have. While I was churning out 50,000 words of Unfallen for NaNoWriMo, Evilpheemy was churning out 30,000 words of Outer Darkness. But now that the novel is done, I’ll have time to churn out 50,000 words of OD. Yeah, right.

For those of you who want to know, Unfallen is a novelization of a role-playing game which I started running about two years ago, with AB, SL, Daughter-of-Midnight (wife of Evilphemmy), and Purplkat. It involved modern mages in a dark version of San Francisco, monsters, a worldwide epidemic of nightmares, and even other levels of reality. And the 50,000 words that I wrote is apparently only Part One. Somehow, a new villain showed up at the end of Part One; I let him show up just to watch what he did, and I found myself surprised that his presence helped clarify a lot of long-term plot confusions that I’d been having. The bigger challenge will be writing Parts Two and Three of this thing, since they involve traveling through time to periods of history that I know nothing about.

After visiting with Evilpheemy, I decided that I missed the old gang, so I went to the UC Davis campus where Second Progeny, a live-action role-playing game which is a spinoff of a game I once ran, was being played. It was good to see some of the friends that I hadn’t seen for a long time, and catch up with some of them. I even made a promise that I would play an occasional character in the storyteller’s new game when it begins in January. Once I had forsworn all live-action role-playing. Now it looks like I’m allowing myself to be sucked in again… but only a little bit.

What else is going on in my life these days? I took Jennifer down to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving, and that was great. I know that she had a good time, and my family thinks that Jennifer is the cat’s pyjamas. I come from a smart family. Weight Watchers went to hell over Thanksgiving weekend, and I gained a couple of pounds. But life goes on.

But speaking of weight, today I went and saw my doctor for the first time in nearly ten months. Thanksgiving-related poundage aside, he was pleased with me for having lost nearly thirty pounds since the first time he’d seen me, and more pleased (as I was) that my blood pressure is starting to look like a normal person’s blood pressure. Unfortunately, I will probably have to stay on hypertension medication for quite awhile longer, but now it’s at least working.

The job hunt continues, but not very encouragingly. I’ve had exactly one interview since I got laid off, in spite of all of the resumes, the contacts, the leads that turn out to be red herrings. I remember when I was looking for work when I had first decided to make my career change; I couldn’t keep the recruiters back. Now, none of the recruiters that I worked with before have anything for me. Sign of the times, I suppose. Ah, well. I’ve decided that if this keeps up through January, I’ll take a part-time job, at least. I don’t think I’d mind that; some of the best jobs I’ve ever had were the part-time McJobs that you can’t avoid after college. I think working in the video store was best. I’m hoping that I can get that one again.

On the schooling front, I’ve been continuig to do the research for the professor in hydrology. This week I’m in the main library at UC Davis researching comparative efficacies of different rainfall simulators. And the professor has also asked me to help out in his water analysis lab as well, so this Friday I’m meeting with the graduate student that I’ll be replacing so that I can learn the ropes. That’ll be interesting.

My wife has engaged in something called "Holidailies", and she challenged me the other night to participate as well. I had to decline. While I had no doubt that I could come up with 50,000 words in November, I doubt that I could come up with a journal entry every single day of the entire month.

And that’s what’s going on in my head today. Nothing profound or even interesting.

Majestic

A couple of years ago, before Y2K failed to dim so much as a single light bulb at midnight, studying bizarre and wacky conspiracy theories was quite a hobby of mine. I used to spend hours reading through the more bizarre conspiracy sites, looking up black helicopters, Men In Black, the Majestic-12 group, and so on. I enjoyed reading the rants of William F. Cooper, and a couple of others whose name I’ve completely forgotten at this point. And while I never believed that JFK was killed by anything more complicated than a single gunman with very good luck, I always found it intriguing to learn what people thought about the idea that the US Government had signed a treaty with alien visitors to exchange technology for human experimental subjets, or whether the United Nations is set to invade the United States and turn the world into a single government police state.

Personally, I think that believing such tripe is giving way too much credit to the ability of the US Government to keep secrets. Yes, small secrets can be kept for a good amount of time — there are people I know who performed secret operations in the Armed Forces decades ago and who still won’t talk about it — but massive conspiracies just won’t work for long periods of time. It would involve the willingness of everyone involved, from the highest to the lowest, to keep their mouths shut forever about massively important issues, and people just aren’t capable of doing that. And the government, after all, is composed of people who are capable of the same mistakes and screw-ups that you and I are capable of.

On the other hand, it is fun to speculate. Does the government really engage in mind control experiments under the umbrella of MK-ULTRA? Does Majestic-12 really exist? Are there really aliens that maintain regular contact with the US government? And so on. I especially enjoyed making up my own wacky conspiracy theories using the same evidence that many of the other conspiracy theorists out there used (the best ones always claimed that the official denial of the existence of a conspiracy was outright proof that a conspiracy exists — which is sort of like saying that my denail that I own luxury yacht harbored in Boston is absolute proof that I do own such a yacht).

And so now there’s this game, Majestic, an on-line role-playing game which incorporates all of these elements and throws you deep into a storyline involving the conspiracy. But Majestic doesn’t just keep itself confined to the computer screen; oh, no. You get telephone calls, you get e-mails, you get instant messages, you get faxes… It’s an immersive sort of experience. I’d first heard about Majestic at DunDraCon 2001, and I checked it out briefly one night while I was in Portland last March, but I avoided getting involved. I just didn’t have time for it.

But the other day my friend PurplKat sent me an instant message telling me that I just had to check out this game. So I went, I signed up for the free preview and played it through, and found myself getting caught up. I finished off the free preview in a couple of days, and decided to splurge and go for the full experience. The game is meant, really, for people like me, who don’t really have the time to get fully involved in a long term game, so the puzzles are relatively simple and can be solved in a few minutes with the clues that the game gives you. Sometimes you have to go back and look up some things that you hadn’t considered important before, and some times it’s possible to miss something completely.

But my main interest is in the unfolding storyline, which is what I always get intrigued by (I’m the kind of guy who, when playing a game on my computer, almost always turns off the "battle" features, or sets the battle difficulty at minimum so that I can concentrate on the mysteries and plots at hand). Seeing the names of secret groups like Majestic come up, or MK-ULTRA, or HAARP, or even Pale Horse is like re-encountering old friends… delusional friends, of course, but it’s still fun to get wrapped up in a story like this which involves some of the same elements I played around with just for fun a few years ago.

Of course, if you’re the type of person who believed that The Blair Witch Project was real, then, obviously, Majestic isn’t for you. Nevertheless, though, I’ve encountered a couple of people playing the game who believe that "it’s more than a game". One fellow I chatted with joked about "they" tapping our IM conversations, but I did encounter someone who really does believe that the government is keeping an eye on the people who play this game.

I always worry about people like this. When I ran a Live Action Vampire game in Davis a couple of years ago, I included on our website a link with the words "So you think you’re a real vampire?" which led to Bellevue Mental Hospital. There really are people out there who think that they’re vampires, and some of them play in LARP’s. There really are people who think that their Dungeons and Dragons characters have some sort of life outside of the game. There really are people who believe in these "shadow governments" and the aliens and that the United Nations is going to take over at any minute and confiscate all of our guns.

It’s the people like these who give fodder to the anti-gaming nuts, the ones who go on daytime talk shows with stories about how Dungeons and Dragons caused their kid to commit suicide. The truth is that the kid was probably already troubled to begin with, and the game gave the kid an outlet for their troubles. In such cases, I blame the parents for not seeing the signs before hand, and for essentially neglecting the kid’s emotional needs.

But I guess that’s all beside the point. The real point is that I’m getting more deeply involved in this game, and I’m enjoying it immensely. For the small price that it costs and the fact that it requires very little time commitment, it’s worth it.

And who knows? Perhaps there is a grand world conspiracy to let the Illuminati control the United Nations through the extraterrestrials who are breeding hybrids with human beings and using top secret mind control devices developed by the US Government during the Vietnam War to turn us all into slaves of the New World Order. And perhaps Kennedy was killed because he knew all this and was about to tell the truth.

Nah. That’s preposterous. And besides, if I knew, would I really tell you?

But now I’ve got to go. Jennifer and I are headed out to Boston to take a cruise.

Munchkin' Away

Over the past five years or so, my parents have built up a fairly respectable little theater company at their church, the Shoestring Theater Company. They’ve put on a number of productions, including Oliver Twist, Annie, and Godspell, in addition to smaller productions that are usually part of a church service or some such thing. This year, their production was The Wizard of Oz, which I think my father has been wanting to be a part of for years. Jennifer and her parents and I drove the 120 miles or so down to Los Gatos on Saturday to see the play, and we all had a grand time. My sister was fun to watch as the Scarecrow, my aunt was perfectly cast as the Wicked Witch of the West (no offense to my aunt, of course — so please don’t turn me into a toad!), and my dad, in my opinion, pretty much stole the show with his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion. On the whole, though, I really do think I enjoyed watching my little sister portray the Scarecrow the most. I am inordinantly proud of her; she’s recently graduated high school and has started attending a local junior college to take classes in art. I don’t think she knows what she wants do Do With Her Life yet, but that’s quite all right; at 18, you don’t have to know. I, personally, think that she ought to pursue the arts; she’s quite a talented artist, in my opinion, and I hope that she does something with that in the future. Whatever she does, though, I’m sure that she’ll do it well.

Jennifer’s mother was really impressed with the show, as she was with the Shoestring Theater Company’s production of Godspell last year. What really impressed her was the way the production company had included everyone who wanted to be included. "Everyone has a place at God’s table," she said. And it’s true that my parents have made a special effort to get as many people involved in their productions as possible. For the munchkins, of course, my parents cast dozens of the church’s children; and who, really, would be better for the part? The children very obviously had a great time in the show, even the one young boy who was either sick or too shy to take part in most of the dancing and sat on the step in front of Dorothy’s house, next to the withered feet of the Wicked Witch of the East.

Segue here. But I promise that I’ll bring some of these upcoming disparate elements together somewhere in here, somehow. Keep the faith.

My friend Evilpheemy and I are in the middle of designing a role-playing game system; we’ve only been gaming together for a few years, not even five years, so I don’t have quite the gaming history with him that other people do; but our minds work enough alike that we can work together on a large creative project without ripping each others’ throats out yet still have enough differences of opinions so that things can still get interesting. Evilpheemy’s concentrating on the development of the actual mechanics of the system, with some input from me, while I’ve been busily developing the overall milieu of the game setting, with some input from him. All in all, though, The Outer Darkness is primarily his baby.

The two of us represent two different styles of gaming. We’re not really opposite ends of the spectrum; Evilpheemy enjoys rules and systems and gaming engines much more than I do; whereas I think I’m a bit more prone to worrying about whether my storylines are clichéd or truly original, and making sure that my games are some sort of High Art, and I rarely know all of the rules as thoroughly as I should (in fact, when I spent three years of my life running a Vampire oriented Live Action Role-Playing Game, I had a number of assistant Storytellers whose role was to focus on the mechanics of the rules and rule interpretations while I built up the huge plots that really excited me). Naturally, neither style of play is better than the other. It’s kind of like the difference between the UI of Macintosh or Windows 9x; both are essentially the same, but both have fanatical adherents.

In gaming, though, there is a phenomenon which is often referred to as "Munchkin Gaming". The term "munchkin" is applied to those players who insist on a certain sort of high-powered gaming. These are the players in a Dungeons and Dragons game who really want characters that are half-dragon 28th level mages that can polymorph at will into an Elven fighter mage, or something like that. In Vampire: The Masquerade, they want to be the 6th Generation Brujah with Disciplines to rival any Antediluvian, plus several Master-level out-of-clan Disciplines besides.

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire: The Masquerade, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, then you probably know the type anyway; Munchkins come in all forms and sizes and live everywhere. Outside of gaming, Munchkins are the ones who insist that they know more than the teacher, who refuse to believe it when the teacher is right; they’re the ones who always know more than you, who always want more than you, and who believe with all of their soul that they deserve it. And what’s more, they whine about it when they don’t get it.

I’ve been running role-playing games in one form or another for close to twenty years, and it’s quite a fair estimate when I say that I’ve probably run close to a thousand game sessions. In all that time, I’ve never met a player who didn’t exhibit some sort of munchkinism at one point or another. I’ve done it myself, even; when I play a character in someone else’s game, I frequently want to be the Really Powerful Mage or the Mega Fighter. I try to keep my whining down when my stats don’t quite make it to all eighteens, at least.

I can think of many ways that you can be a munchkin outside of gaming. The most obvious that springs to mind is to insist that you deserve a special set of privileges from life, and to whine about it when you don’t get it. Do you believe that you’re entitled to a particular job, a particular lifestyle, a particular income level, a particular set of circumstances in life? Well, okay, that’s fine. But how are you going to choose to respond to the fact that you probably don’t haven’t got that job, that income, that set of circumstances — are you going to whine about it, take your dice and your character sheet and go home, so to speak? Or are you going to stick in it for the long haul and see where you can take your low-level character over the next few months of the campaign? Personally, I think that the second is the more desireable option; if for no other reason than because you’ll probably have a lot more fun along the way.

The Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz are a fairly innocuous folk, happy and beaming and organizing themselves into groups with auspicious names like "The Lullabye League" and "The Lollipop Guild". I’m not sure how the term Munchkin came to be associated with the obnoxious practices in gaming that I’ve outlined above. Who knows, except that the term "munchkin" came to be associated with contemptuous behavior in general.

How do I continue to "munchkinate" in my own life? Well, there is certainly a part of me which would like to believe that I can have a career which I enjoy, in which I’m successful, and in which I can earn the respect of my colleagues for my skill and talent in that career; heck, I have this dream of being invited to lend my expertise in places all over the world. I don’t know if I’m ever going to achieve that, and at the age of 33 it seems unlikely that I’ll ever find such a career… and I’m not entirely sure that being another code jock in another cubicle will lead me there. I can respond to that situation by either whining about it, or taking the relatively low stats that I’ve rolled for myself, setting out at the beginning, and seeing where I can go.

The old adage says that a man’s reach should never exceed his grasp. However, there is a line from William Blake of which I’m very fond, which goes something like this: "A man’s reach MUST exceed his grasp; otherwise, what is heaven for?" And even Data, the "artificial life form" from Star Trek: The Next Generation had wisdom regarding this sort of thing; he knew that his quest to become truly human would never succeed, but he understood that sometimes reaching for such a goal is in and of itself important, because the journey itself provides its own rewards.

Meanwhile, here I sit, typing away on my computer, close to midnight. I promised Evilpheemy that I would have a completed campaign setting for The Outer Darkness finished up by the end of the month, which will be upon us on Saturday, and I’m not finished with it yet. So I guess I’d better get working.

Meanwhile, here is a picture of some of the cast from my parents’ production of The Wizard of Oz. You can see my sister dressed up as the Scarecrow, and my dad dressed up as the Cowardly Lion. It was a great play, and if you happen to be in the neighborhood of the Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos in the next week, I strongly recommend that you check it out.


In other news: after over two weeks of messing around and struggling, I’ve finally gotten my Linux box working again. The solution involved re-installing the proper kernel from the installation CD-ROM and updating my network configuration. There are still a few minor kinks to work out, but now I can boot my Linux box again and even get on-line without booting the other computers in our network off-line. I am so proud of myself that I could just spit.

Hive Mind

"I tried to join the Borg hive-mind, but all I got were hives."

This past weekend, Jennifer and I went to DunDraCon, a role-playing game convention in the Bay Area. It had been a full year since I’d been to any sort of convention, and something like a dozen years before that. While I maintain that I am not any sort of nerd, I admit that I really enjoy these things. Even though I didn’t get to play in any games (both of the Call of Cthulhu games that Jennifer and I had signed up for were canceled, and the Fading Suns LARP that I joined didn’t work out very well for me), it was fun to see friends that I hadn’t seen for awhile and participate in seminars about the future of on-line role-playing games. One seminar that I was around for part of concerned the ways in which narrative structures are forced to change in response to "huge multi-player spaces". That is, on-line game systems which involve hundreds or even thousands of players. I had read a book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, a year or two ago which concerns exactly this subject; and even though I didn’t get to participate much in the discussion, I was fascinated by the subject.

It was a nostalgic weekend. Last year, some of my friends and I came to this same convention to playtest and begin marketing a role-playing game that we’ve been developing on our own. Unfortunately, we haven’t made much progress in developing the game, although when we play-tested it last year, it was quite a hit. And so this year I enjoyed seeing these same friends, looking around at all of the different games for sale, including Call of Cthulhu (one of my favorites), Dungeons and Dragons (now in its third edition), and more. Jennifer was less than impressed with the dealers’ room; the kind of weaponry that was on sale there was not necessarily of the quality that we would want to see on the groomsmen at our wedding. It made us glad that they’ll be able to provide their own swords.

Years ago, my friends and I used to play role-playing games frequently; in fact, there have been times when gaming was a constant activity in my apartment. At least three nights a week, for six or more hours each night, we would delve into our own imaginations and live schizophrenic lives involving paper, pencils, junk food, and dice. Lots and lots of dice. Lots and lots and lots of dice.

I miss those days.

The convention was also a nice break from work. In a way, in spite of the bronchitis and the hospital visit, these past two weeks have been rather nice. I’ve been able to avoid traveling up to Portland for work and just stay in one place. In fact, I spent more time working from home than from the office over the past two weeks. The stress level hasn’t dropped all that much, but it’s easier for me to cope with at home, surrounded by cats and even with Jennifer from time to time. But this week, things are closer to normal again. My doctor had told me last week that in light of my skyrocketing blood pressure, it might be a good idea to get a new job, with less stress. I’ve considered it, but it will probably be awhile before I think that’s really necessary.

The only really bad part of this past weekend was the hives that I broke out into. For three days, I was covered in itchy, red welts (I’m sure that I was a lovely sight). I’ve been combating it with antihistamines and cortisone, and that seems to be working. I spoke to my doctor yesterday, who took, I thought, a certain unprofessional glee in pointing out to me that among the many other causes and exacerbations of such hives, stress – particularly job-related stress – is high among them. He reiterated his suggestion about finding a new job, which does and doesn’t appeal to me.

One of the most exciting things I saw at the gaming convention was a demonstration of an on-line roleplaying environment hosted by a company called Skotos. I spent some time talking to some of the engineers and managers who worked for this company, and I found myself getting really excited by the fact that they’re using some of the same technologies that I’m using at my job and that I’ve been learning – PHP, XML, Oracle, Java, and so on. I had a long conversation with the CEO of another company which develops engines for such games, and learned that he knows the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck personally. I’ve taken some time and played in Castle Marrach, the current offering from Skotos, and while I was frustrated by the limited range of role-playing that their parser offers, I’m also excited about the potential of that company. They (as well as the other company I talked to) are essentially internet startups, and they’ve sought out funding from large entertainment companies, based on business models designed around revolutionizing entertainment and bringing on-line gaming venues to popular markets.

We’ll see if it works out for them. And I certainly hope that it does.
Jennifer has, on many occasions, told me that I’m a nerd. While I deny these false accusations firmly, I will admit that if I decided to leave the company I’m working for now to take a job with an Internet role-playing game company… Well, then, I suppose I would indeed be a nerd.