Friday, August 29, 2008

My return to D&D

As I explained in my last article, I was itching to play D&D again. But there were problems.

I purchased the rule books for the third edtion of D&D in 2000. I was mildly annoyed that Wizards of the Coast released a “version 3.5” of the game in 2003. But I bought the 3.5e rule books anyway. I never did completely understand the nature of the updates to the game rules. But I put my trust in the fact that the constructive feedback from hundreds of players neccesitated it.

The main problem that I had at the time was that I had no one to play with. I was in my early 30s. My adolescent gaming buddies had moved away. I had gone off to art school and focused on my career. I eventually moved back to my home town and reunited with a few old friends. But most of them didn’t game or had busy lives.

Shortly after D&D 3e was released, I picked up a boxed set of “basic” D&D rules that was designed as an introduction to the hobby. I managed to get a few games going but no regularly scheduled sessions.

In 2005, my chance to really play D&D once again came after a reuniting with an old gaming buddy. While I had gone on to different things in my own life, he had never stopped gaming. As a matter of fact, he has been involved with at least two gaming session each week for almost the last 20 years. When I met up with him again, he and his group had recently started a D&D 3.5e campaign. I mentioned that I was interested in playing again. He told me that there was no opening at his table. But a little later, someone dropped out of his group and I took over that player’s character.

At first it was fun. I liked the character that I was running. Although I would have liked to have created it myself, the character wasn’t too far off from what I would have created anyway. It was a female half-elf wizard named Blaize. Since she had an affinity for fire and fire-based spells, her name was appropriate.

I was happy to get back into dungeon crawling again.

But the fun didn’t last.

Why I started playing D&D again

In 2000, Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. For me, it was completely unexpected. Unlike those who were keeping up with the role-playing game industry, I hadn’t prowled the internet for news about the latest products. I just didn’t care. Every once in a while I would visit Steve Jackson’s website and shop for GURPS source books. Not because I was actually playing RPGs anymore. It was partly because I wanted to study RPG rules with the intention of applying some of the concepts to computer video games.

I wasn’t interested at all in anything pertaining to D&D. I had heard no news about the third edition until I noticed the rule books sitting on the shelf at the book store. Just for the heck of it, I bought all three books. I was actually impressed with the new changes. But, alas, I had absolutely no one to play with. These books were merely an intellectual curiosity for me.

I was completely oblivious to the dire controversies surrounding the third edition of D&D that were being discussed on the internet. I would merely chuckle at the occasional person I would meet that complained about how the third edition had “ruined D&D forever.” I couldn’t really debate the issue because I had never actually played the new version of the game.

When I noticed that an introductory “basic” boxed set was for sale, I bought it with the intention of trying it out with some of my friends. The rules were presented in a simple manner with a series of short adventures. It would be a while before I met up with any interested players.

What really brought me back to the life of a pulp fantasy tabletop adventure gamer was not anyone I met, something I saw on TV, or something I read on the internet. It was actually a comic. A badly drawn comic book. This was unusual because really good art is what primarily attracts me to comic books. (I don’t like superhero comic books so don’t ask me about those. I like the kind of stuff you’d see in Heavy Metal Magazine.) One day, around the year 2002, I noticed a comic book titled, Knights of the Dinner Table.

Knights of the Dinner Table is a comic strip that started in 1990. Most of the stories take place at a dinning room table where a group of players are playing a fictional game that is obviously just like D&D. It’s just them, sitting around talking about what is happening in their game. For gamers, KotDT is hilarious and is packed with inside jokes that only gamers would understand. This strip rose to prominence in Dragon magazine and eventually became it’s own comic book. But it’s latest incarnation is actually more of a comic magazine because it contains just as many articles as it does comic strip material. And after almost 18 years, the quality of the artwork has not improved in the slightest. But illustration is not important in this case. It’s the story. With a smile on my face, I read the adventures of B.A. and his group of players humorously scheme and argue at the table.

I eventually started buying the comic book every month. And I also realized that I missed playing D&D. I had abandoned the game years ago. I realized that I longed for the days of hack-and-slash gaming. My heart melted with nostalgia. KotDT took me back to those days of slaying orcs and looting their gold. Kicking goblin ass! Falling into pit traps! Solving riddles and making maps. Torches burning out and getting eaten by a grue. With each new issue of the comic, I realized how much I missed those Saturday afternoons spent in the World of Greyhawk. I wanted to play D&D again. I wanted to dungeon crawl!

As I had mentioned in a previous article, I had all but given up on gaming because of the preparation and storytelling skills that were involved. I didn’t know it at the time, but KotDT was a turning point in my life.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

White Dwarf #1

While googling about on the internet, I came across this free PDF of White Dwarf #1. Published in 1977, it's an interesting insight into the early days of gaming.

Of particular interest to me is the article, D&D Campaigns, and this paragraph:

D&D Styles

D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel, i .e . direct escapism through abandonment of oneself to the flow of play as opposed to the gamer's indirect escapism - the clearcut competition and mental exercise any good game offers . There are two subdivisions in each division . The game-players may emphasise player skill in players-vs-monsters (and sometimes vs other players) or they may prefer players-vs-puzzles (riddles, traps, mazes, etc.) to monster slaying . Of course no D&D campaign is purely one or the other. The escapists can be divided into those who prefer to be told a story by the referee, in effect, with themselves as protagonist, and those who like a silly, totally unbelievable game. In either case, there are two ways this can be accomplished. One is by innumerable dice rolls and situations which call for chance, especially magical decks of cards, buttons, levers, and so on - lottery D&D. The other is by manipulation of the situation by the referee, however he sees fit. In California, for example, this leads to referees who make up more than half of what happens, what is encountered and so on, as the game progresses rather than doing it beforehand. In either case the player is a passive receptor, with little control over what happens.
Interesting. I had always suspected that a division between two basic types of D&D game play manifested early on. It appears that the "escapist" route ultimately prevailed in popularity. Personally, I'm more in favor of the "game-player" variety. Or, as it is commonly called these days, an old school gamer.

At a later time, I'd like to write more about this subject.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When I stopped playing role-playing games

In the 1990s, I went to art school and moved away from my old hometown gaming buddies. I still occasionally purchased new GURPS source books and never lost my fascination with game rules and creating campaign settings. But, unfortunately, I had no one to play with. Not for lack of gamers in the area. There were plenty at college. I just didn’t want to game with them. Most of all I was more focused on school and other life issues. Once in a while, I got together with old friends and played GURPS. I had no interest in playing D&D again. The only exception was a brief second edition D&D campaign that I DM’d for some friends “for old time’s sake.” It was sort of fun while it lasted. But it suffered from lack of a sufficient number of players.

By the end of the 1990s, my interest in role-playing games almost completely faded away. I had almost no one to game with anymore. Being a 30-year-old living in a Bible Belt red state meant that other gamers are very few and far between. No one at work played chess, let alone D&D.

One of the biggest obstacles was my attitude towards other gamers, in general. So many of the ones that I met were on the fringes of society. Many of the random people I would encounter at game shops or comic shops seemed to usually exemplify the worst kind of “otaku” or “fan boy.” I just did not want to associate with many of these creepy dudes who seemed to be failures in life. Right off the bat, I could usually discern some sort of psychological shortcoming.

What happened, I thought to myself, to all of the level-headed people who used to play role-playing games? All my brainy friends from my youth had done the right thing and moved to less conservative parts of the world. I was working at a corporate job that actively suppressed creativity. (See the movie Office Space.)

My gamer friends were reduced to a few that I had known since adolescence. We would try to play GURPS but the campaigns never lasted more than a few sessions. The GM would have some sort of plot in mind and the players couldn’t get into it very much. Worst of all, sometimes up to three game sessions were devoted to just generating and fleshing out our characters. We never played any modules or any other type of published adventures. We were all convinced that the best way was our own invented storyline.

In hindsight, I think it was the preoccupation with writing story plots that killed it for me. I just don’t think I’m a fantastic writer. I’m not very good at defining charcters with depth and motivation that would flawlessly fit in with what I thought the player-characters would do. How was I able to see into the future and know what the players would behave? How can I possibly plan all the contingencies of actions in order to further the story? At the time, I was convinced that what role-playing games were really all about was creative improvisational storytelling. And I’m not that great of a storyteller.

Also, the rules for playing GURPS had seemed to become so complicated. As any GURPS fan will tell you, the rules are actually very simple and can be summarized on one page. But GURPS players never rely on just the one page. Not only is the core rule book several hundred pages long, there are dozens of supplementary rule books that can be used. Generating a character can take a long, long time. And the nature of our established style of “storytelling” campaigns required an unreasonable amount of preparation.

The players in our group would ask our GM, "When are we going to start that GURPS campaign?" All too often the answer was, "I'm still working on it." And then once we started playing, we would never finish.

I just didn’t have time for gaming anymore. And most people my age didn’t have the time for it either.

But all was not lost.

Role-playing games are more than just D&D

While in junior high school, I played TSR games with my friends on the weekends. AD&D, Boot Hill, Top Secret, Gamma World, and Star Frontiers were played all day Saturdays and sometimes late into the night. When I entered high school, I met new gamer friends and we explored other games. One of our favorites, since it was during the Cold War, was the post-apocalyptic Twilight: 2000. D&D was always the mainstay.

One game that I always thought was fascinating was Traveller. I picked up a copy of the boxed set of three rule books in San Francisco while on a family trip to California. This was the first science-fiction role-playing game I had ever seen. Amazingly, I had never heard of it before. I read and re-read those rule for years. But I never, ever had anyone to play it with. No one else I knew had a copy of the rules. I had no frame of reference for conducting a game so I never felt comfortable running a session. But I did have fun with the random star system generator.

Systems of game rules have always been fascinating to me. I’ve never been the best strategist, as some of my friends will attest. But that never stopped me from tinkering with role-playing game concepts. While in high school, a burst of inspiration drove me to create an entirely new game system. Although I enjoyed various genre games, I thought it would be interesting to have one game that covered all the bases. Magic spells, melee combat, martial arts, gun battles, vehicle combat, spaceships, science-fiction gadgets, etc. all rolled into one set of rules. This game I titled Colony. The premise was that the player-characters were colonists of the far future that have set up homestead on a planet filled with swords and sorcery. My friends and I played several sessions of the game and they seemed to enjoy it. I printed up the rules on an Atari dot-matrix printer. And I might still have that rule book squirreled away someplace in storage.

But then I discovered GURPS, the Generic Universal Role-Playing System. With mixed feelings, I realized that this was the game I was trying to write. Simple and elegant with an infinitely open-ended set of rules, I was sold on Steve Jackson’s masterpiece. I thereafter scoffed at D&D and mocked what I thought was an archaic set of rules. Sure, I purchased all three of the core rulebooks of the second edition of D&D. But at that time I was never very interested in playing it. TSR's marketing of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance were of no interest to me at all. Me and my friends were all convinced that GURPS was the way to play.

And so the Generic Universal Role-Playing System was the only one I played for almost 10 years.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My first D&D adventure

In 1981, I was given my first set of D&D rules for Christmas. It was the “Holmes edition” Basic Set. Some of my friends had the hardbound AD&D books and I eyed those tomes with envy.

I was invited to a friend’s house for my very first D&D game session. He was using his older brother’s AD&D books. And the adventure was something that my friend had created himself. What kind of characters did we have? 18th level, of course. None of that weak, low-level nonsense! It was ridiculous.

That experience electrified my imagination. Of all the RPG adventures that I had in my youth, that one was the one I remember the most vividly. It was short and involved only a handful of non-sequitor encounters. One involved a large sculpture of a hand that flattend someone in the party. Another took place in the room that was depicted on the cover of the Player’s Handbook. Hey, we were in 5th grade and we had fun. I enjoyed the experience so much that I asked my friend to write down the adventure and give me a copy of it along with the characters we used. I still have those papers someplace. As I recall, a few of the character sheets are missing. But I still have the adventure text. When I find them I’ll post it here.

After our game, I remember being told about a really weird dungeon involving computers and laser guns. It was Expedition to Barrier Peaks and I vowed I would eventually get a copy of that module.

When I went home later that afternoon, I remember telling my dad all about the adventures I had that day. He was working outside on a car or maybe a piece of wooden furniture. He listened to my little kid ramblings with only mild interest. And that was fine.

The following year, shortly before a long family road trip during summer vacation, my mother took me down to the local hobby shop one memorable day and bought me the three first edition AD&D rule books. For a little kid, I had a lot to read for the rest of the year.

D&D is not a board game

My first experience with any sort of tabletop game was probably checkers. It’s an easy game for first-graders to learn. Perhaps in second or third grade, I was introduced to chess. Down through the years I played Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, and Battleship. But from there, I did not graduate directly to D&D like many of the fellow gamers my age.

I have two siblings in my family. My two older brothers are almost ten years older than me. They were into the strategic war games that became popular during the late 1960s and through the ‘70s. My older brothers and my father used to play a popular strategy war game called Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. I was a little kid and the rules were too complicated for me to completely understand. But they did let me play and helped me along with managing the game mechanics. They usually let me play Russia.

One of the minor problems with playing these strategy war games is the size of the map. Like most strategy war games of the time, it uses a cardboard fold-out hex map. This one is of the European theater during the second world war. It uses small cardboard chits to represent military units. And each hex is just large enough to place one of these square unit chits. The problem is with stacking. When big battles start lining up along fronts, the units begin stacking up into piles. It makes it difficult to know exactly which units are in what pile.

The men in my family were so enthusiastic about the game that they decided to design and draw up a larger version of the map that allowed four stacks of chits in each hex. This new map wasn’t drawn up on pieces of paper taped together. No, sir! After calculating the proper size, they purchased a large sheet of drywall for the game board. With a yardstick, they carefully drew the hex grid in ink, colored it in with watercolor paint, and labeled the cities with permanent markers. They even framed it with a varnished wooden frame they made themselves. The thing was massive. We placed it on an old ping-pong table in the basement. The games would sometimes last an entire week.

Our family still has this massive game board that we made in the 1980s. Unfortunately, we haven’t brought it out for game play in over 20 years. Recently we have been talking about playing it again on the computer over the internet. My brothers sometimes ask me if I could design an online version of the game. I’ve been toying with the idea ever since but that is a subject for another article.

As a Christmas present in 1981, I received from my parents the Dungeons & Dragons boxed "Basic Set". I described in my previous article how I was introduced to D&D by my friends and even went so far as to draw up my own dungeon without the help of any rules. I was so happy to get this game that I dove right into it. Flipping through the rule book, I discovered the cross section of the “Stone Mountain” dungeon complex on page 39 and the example dungeon on page 42. Squares! Graph paper! Skull-shaped mountains! Cool!

One of my older brothers, the one who was the most enthused about playing strategy war games, had heard about D&D but had never played it before. Shortly after I got the game, he picked up the blue rule book, sat down in a recliner chair and he declared, “I’m going to read this and learn this game.”

But he didn’t.

I think my brother realized that D&D was not a board game. Also, the rules of the game are completely open-ended by design. The game asks for improvisational role-playing and I don’t think he was all that interested in playing something like that.

So it was only I, the youngest of a family of strategy war gamers, that became a life-long D&D gamer. However, my mother was a theater director and she thought D&D was pretty neat. But that’s the subject of another article.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My First Dungeon

I started gaming when I was about 10 years old in 1981. My brainy friends introduced me to a game that some of the older brainy kids were playing, Dungeons & Dragons. It took me a while to understand that it was different from other games.

At first, I treated it exactly like a board game. But it was one where you were expected to draw your own game board and fill it with monsters and treasure. Before I had ever actually played a real game session of D&D, I was drawing up my own dungeon. That piece of paper is long lost to the trash heap of time. I don’t think it had a theme. But I remember how simple it was. I didn’t draw it on graph paper because I didn’t yet understand that the game was usually played with miniatures and a 1-inch square graph. I didn’t even have a rule book and was just going on what my friends were telling me about the game. But it had goblins and minotaur creatures and a dragon. In each room, the monsters guarded a treasure chest filled with gold. And the dragon, of course, was sitting on a mountain of treasure. At least I had read The Hobbit and knew that much about dragons.

I remember taking this map home and showing it off to my parents. I received the usual, "That's nice, honey" and the usual reminder to do my homework. I tried playing the game with my mom or my dad and they didn't quite understand the point. To them, it probably just seemed like a maze game. But they saw that I was being creative and did not discourage me in any way.

As it turned out, my first dungeon map resembled some of the deep cavern levels of some popular D&D modules. I didn’t know squat about monster statistics or any of the game rules at all. What fascinated me was how the game resembled what I later learned to be a flow chart. The Dungeon Master explained to the players that they were in one cave and that they can choose to go out one of the exits. After the players made their choice of where to go, the DM described what happens when they go to the next cave. That freedom of choice based upon a pre-defined framework totally fascinated me.

It wasn’t as if I had only played Monopoly of Clue all of my life. I was familiar with strategic war games like Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. But I didn’t completely understand the improvisational qualities of D&D game play. I would soon learn.

In my next article, I’ll talk about the first D&D game rule book I ever owned and my first real game session.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Where to begin?

Where to begin, indeed.

For the last year, I have developed a renewed interest in Dungeons & Dragons. This blog is an outlet for my ramblings about the subject of D&D and role-playing games in general. Of particular interest to me is a renewed interest in a sort of back-to-basics attitude that seems to be developing in the RPG community.

Perhaps this blog will be used to report the exploits of ongoing campaigns. Maybe I'll post an idea for monster stats or a new magic item. Or maybe I'll just rant about these crazy kids with their THAC0s and their cleave feats and their iPhones and their hula hoops...

In any case, I wanted my first blog post to be short and sweet. My original version of this post turned into a very long article. Too much all at once, I think. Over the next few days I'll refine it into a series of articles about my lifetime experiences with RPGs, how I lost interest, and how I regained it.

What is Xeveninti, you ask? He's the insane wizard that built the castle and meat grinder dungeon through which I will doom my players to horrible and sometimes hilarious deaths. My personal version of Zagyg. More about him later.

Good morning!