Roll for Self-Doubt

This isn’t an easy post to write but in order to jump start my writing on this blog again, I feel it’s important.  The new year has been tough for me and this blog.  No posts and, even worse, little inspiration to write them.  I’ve been struggling with something and I finally thought it would be best to just get it out in the open in hopes that exposing the blockage will remove it.

I’ve been involved in the hobby since the early 1980’s.  I’ve talked about it in past posts and have a bit more to say in the future as well.  I started the blog because I feel I have some knowledge from my experiences and wanted to share.  I followed my instincts and thought I had a good plan.

Then, I started to get more involved in Twitter and exploring what is going on with this new “roleplaying renaissance” and wow, were my eyes opened.

A lot of what I wanted to talk about is already being done and explained.  So many talented people already doing some amazing things!   Games are being live-streamed every day on Twitch, talk shows and podcasts cover the deeper elements of storytelling and roleplaying.  What an amazing time it is to be so interested in roleplaying and gaming!  We have awesome discussions and a vibrant community while public perception shift more and more towards acceptance of the hobby.  I wanted to be playing in live-streams and having these cool discussions.

Most of the wind was taken out of my sails when I started feeling that I was just the old graybeard coming late to a party I had been looking forward to most of my life.  It knocked me down and I let it cause a bit too much self-reflection and way too much self-doubt.  So much so it’s taken me a month or more to get the words for this post.   However, when I get down there is a favorite saying of mine which I go to repeatedly.  It comes from the movie Ghosts in the Darkness, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit…  The getting up is up to you.”

Then, I realized something else.   I can’t be the only one that feels this way.  There are probably a ton of other folks out there feeling a similar feeling.  “My stuff isn’t good enough/ on par with what is happening now.”  “I’m just another regular ol’ D&D player, what do I have to offer?” “I just got started but will never be that good.”  “My GM skills are really weak.”

Think of it this way, what if any of the folks we are looking up to in the industry had given in to their self-doubt?  We wouldn’t have the historic situation we have now, would we?

All kinds of voices are needed for this hobby/way of life.  Our kingdom of gaming geekery is vast and full of resources.  We’re all needed.  New players, veteran players and, yes, even us grey beards. We’re all a part of this and every productive voice adds to the whole in one way or the other.

If you’ve been down lately and if you feel like it, I’d like for you to get up too.  Do something small.  Speak up.  Write something.  Draw something.  Paint a mini.  Sketch a map.  I don’t care if it’s your first attempt or your hundredth.  Maybe you were down before but are doing better?  How about talking about it for others to have inspiration?   Whatever it is, put it out there for all to see.  Put it on Twitter or Tumblr or your blog or anywhere.  If you do, reply here, tag me on Twitter or use the hashtag #GeeksGetBackUp.  I would like to cheer you on and throw a virtual high-five because this shit isn’t easy when you’re battling yourself.

 

 

 

 

Extra Life Birthday

Just a quick announcement and then I promise we will get back to the gaming.

For my birthday this year I will be celebrating by running a 24 hour Extra Life marathon of gaming.   I was unable to make the main event on November 3rd but I decided, at the time, I would figure out a date before the end of the year.   What I’ve decided is it will be this weekend (a few days before my birthday to be exact) on Saturday/Sunday, December 8th/9th.  My start time for the 8th is scheduled for 9:00AM EST.

What is this all about?

Extra Life is a wonderful charity which allows gamers to do what they do best while supporting children’s hospitals all over the country.  This takes the form of a 24 hour fundraising gaming marathon.   It’s simple, really.  Like a dance marathon for charity or a charity race,  I play games and try not to fall asleep while you cheer me on and show your support by donating at my charity page.

I’ll be playing for my local children’s hospital, Riley Hospital for Children and my goal for this year is $500.

This will be my 3rd year doing the event and this time, barring any tech issues, I’ll be streaming the entire, embarrassing day on Twitch.  I’ll be taking breaks for food (maybe) and, due to health reasons, taking a few hours for sleep.  However, don’t worry, any time taken will be made up to equal a full 24 hours!   I’ll be playing a mix of video games including Skyrim, Kynnseed, X-Com and whatever I can get to work for the stream.  I’m even considering doing a bit of RP on the channel as well but I’m not sure how well that will work.

If you have a second this Saturday/Sunday and want to say hello stop over at the Twitch stream anytime during the marathon.  I will also be posting on Twitter throughout the event so feel free to reply there and be sure to retweet me to get the word out.  If you’d like to help me celebrate my birthday and have a few dollars to spare, please head over to the charity page and donate what you can.

I will hopefully see you there!

My Charity Page for the marathon

Extra Life Webpage

 

The Rare Treasure of RPGs – The Horror Game

I think the hardest role playing game to run is a scary one.  It’s Halloween and it has me thinking all sorts of dark and spooky thoughts which have evolved into pondering about role playing games and how difficult it can be to evoke and maintain a proper feeling of fear at the game table.  So many other genres fit well into the role playing mold but what is it about horror that eludes us?  We will be excited and thrilled and happy after a game session of thrilling heroics but how often after a game session are you a bit unsettled as you head home?

My first horror game was Pacesetter’s Chill.  I have fond memories of that game but around the table it turned into a just another group of adventures going to kill a monster.   I’m sure a large part of it was due to my, and my group’s, inexperience at storytelling at the time.  The next step was Call of Cthulhu and though I did not own the game, I played in a small campaign run by a friend.  It was good but I never felt scared or unnerved after a game.   It was not until many years had passed that a friend ran a one shot Call of Cthulhu game that reset the bar for me.  I think it was his emphasis on setting the scene.  He had envisioned some truly startling scenes to unfold and he happily brought them out, regaling us with vivid, lurid descriptions.  One by one our characters folded into insanity or fruitless attempts at defending ourselves against Lovecraftian horrors.  It did not end well and while walking out to my car that evening I noticed that I was on edge and a bit spooked.

It was delicious.

Unfortunately, as a player, this was a singular occurrence for me.   Most of the other horror games I’ve been a part of have all, eventually, turned into the RPG version of the angry mob with pitchforks.  The desperate players confront the Evil Bad Thing and fight it off with whatever weapons are available.  Though it may look different depending on the genre it really is no different than any other big boss battle.

What makes a good horror RPG session different?

Some key points I feel are important:

  • Everyone should agree to the spirit of the game.

I think it stems back to my previous post about the contracts around the table.  Everyone needs to be on board regarding what KIND of game they are getting ready to play.  Everyone playing should understand death and insanity will come more easily, that control and power they take for granted in other games will not be present.  Much like walking into a haunted house, you have to be willing to give up control and allow yourself to be scared.  Most importantly, everyone needs to understand that reaching a solid level of scary is difficult to do around a RPG table.  The odds of success will increase with everyone’s involvement.

  • Limit the Distractions

Put away the cellphones and the off-topic banter about the latest Netflix series.  Keep the out of character wisecracks to a minimum.  Focus on the game and the story that is coming out of it.

A GM might want to invent a game mechanic that penalizes anyone who breaks the rule.  Even better, the other players should be the ones who assign the penalties which the GM enforces.  A player says something to break the spooky mood?  The GM can assign a bit more “nasty” to the game.  Or, perhaps, the player’s character receives a doom point which takes away one success at the GM’s discretion?  The best version of this is something that builds up slowly over the game and gets used near the climax of the story.

  • Embrace Death and Misfortune

As a player in a horror game it’s going to be better if you realize that your character will most likely die a gruesome death.  If you embrace this aspect you can actually help the GM and the other players of the game build up the mounting apprehension of the game if the time comes.  Go out with screaming style and it will notch up the atmosphere around the table.

GM hint – Don’t hesitate to take a character out at any time. Be merciless.  However, remember that the players have come here to play the game, not sit around eating snacks after a gory death scene while the rest of the table plays on.  Have back-up characters or things for the players to do after their first character meets an untimely end.  Maybe running other NPC’s?  Monsters?  Don’t let a player who has given their all to increase the drama be out of the game for the rest of the night.

Also, remember as a GM, there are worse fates than dying!

  • Hit the Senses

Enough emphasis cannot be placed on this one.  Though it’s always important with role playing games it is doubly so with a good horror game.  You need to lay on the descriptions.  Not only tell your players what the creepy, abandoned sanitarium looks like but tell them what it smells like, what it feels like when they touch a wall or a door.  What is the lighting like?

Reverse it on them as well.  When they encounter some sort of viscous,  mucus-like fluid they are expecting to hear what it feels like.  Hit them with what it sounds like, what it smells like.  Why go for all this florid descriptions?  It’s because receiving sensory input can steer emotional reactions within the brain.  Try this out with a fun experiment.  Think of it as a writing exercise.  What does fear smell like to you?  What does dread taste like?

What did you come up with?  Take those and use them in your game next time and see what kind of reaction you get.    Pull from your real experiences and things that scare you.  There is a good chance that if it unsettles you then it will definitely get to your players as well.

Pull no punches.

Happy Halloween!

——–

References:

The Science of Fright: Why We Love to Be Scared

Emotions and Our Senses

 

 

 

 

The Contracts on the Table

Several years ago I was running a fantasy role-playing game and the group of four to five players were working well together.  Things were getting tense during a nasty combat that was going poorly for the players.  Finally, one of them saw an opening and described a combat maneuver which was perfect for his character.  In addition, it was a perfect chance to move that character’s narrative along because of the way he chose to reveal the character’s training through colorful and detailed combat moves.  It was really great and after a wonderful narrative of exactly what he was doing to the bad guy of the encounter, the other characters cheered and applauded.

The player happily rolled his attack with bonuses.  The dice clattered, bounced and came to rest.

He missed his attack roll by one point.

I, as the game master, am embarrassed to say I chose to stick to the die roll and to the game system and declared the action had failed.  The deflation of excitement around the table was felt by everyone in the room, including myself.  The flow of a fun, dramatic game was lost in the snap of a faulty decision.

And what was the faulty decision?

I ignored the invisible contracts on the table.

When we sit down at a gaming table to play a role-playing game there are a lot of expectations.  We expect to roll dice.  We expect to be entertained.  We expect a possible combat and having to make decisions with the abilities we have on our character sheet.  We expect to see the story progress in some way.  Many of us come to the table with these expectations of what we want but don’t stop to think about the other expectations in the room held by the other players.  Those expectations are part of this contract.

The key element to these contracts is Trust.

What is a contract of trust?  In a healthy role playing game it’s the unspoken contract that I will be able to trust the game master (GM) with my character’s story, that I will be able to emote and play through my character’s narrative.  In addition, there is another contract on the table which says I will abide by the other player’s, and by default, their character’s contracts as well.  Every player is trusting me to take care of their character as well as I want them to take care of mine.

On the game master (GM) level, I am being trusted not only with the player’s character content but that my work on the current adventure will not undermine any of the character’s narrative.  Instead, it will support it in time.  This could mean the character goes through a rough time but it also means that, in trust, I as the GM will offer clues, hints, etc. to the player so the character will be able to come out the other side and grow from the experience.  The hero may get captured, beaten up and tortured but an opportunity will arise for she or he to escape and save the day.

In return, I’m trusting the players to move an adventure along, to not run roughshod over my game world and to engage and play with the story hooks and landscapes introduced.  I’m trusting them to help me have a good time as well.

There is a sub-clause in those contracts to not waste anyone’s time.  As you get older, time is more precious.  When I was younger, I remember hours, whole evenings, whole days being lost to running or playing in a game.  I imagine it’s the same for most anyone reading this.  As we get older as players, we are lucky to get 4 to 6 hours in for a game that occurs once a week, once a month, every three months?  I find it’s much more fun spending that time being aware of these contracts and building an entertaining story together.

When a game begins, especially with new players to the hobby, these contracts are unseen but often flying around willy-nilly and never getting signed or perhaps signed by a few players but not the entire group.  Occasionally, no one even knows they are there.  Though this is typically in place with young and or new players, I’ve seen veteran players completely disregarding the contracts of other players as well as the GM and focusing only on what they wish to accomplish.   We’ve all seen players like this and, I hope, have learned not to emulate them.

The best games I have been honored to play in are very cognizant of these invisible contracts.  There is a flow not only in-between the players but also with the players and the GM.  Players look out for other players, sometimes at the expense of their own characters.  Players remember that they have a contract with the GM and work to support the plotlines, NPCs and encounters she or he have worked hard to design and bring to life.

If the contracts of trust are being observed then a magical, improvisational  alchemy comes into play.  One player, Player A, might take the spotlight for a period of time or for an entire adventure knowing at any time another character will be coming forward to replace them.  A good flow and recognition of this contract would be for Player A to make sure the spotlight moves over to Player B or Player C or even the entire group as quickly and as naturally as possible.  This could be through the actions of Player A’s character or a simple conversation with the other players and the GM, “I see this next part being about Player B.  I’ve hogged enough of the spotlight, let’s move it.”

In my experience these contracts are so important and powerful there are occasional moments when they should be recognized over the game rules.  For example, the story which began this article.  The easy way out from that example would be to blame the game system.  The system wasn’t flexible enough.  The rules didn’t give me an out, a failure on the dice is a failure.  However, that’s really just shifting blame from the real issue and the contract.  As game master, I can manipulate the rules at any point in time.  I could have easily ignored the roll and declared the action a success and in the case above, wish I had done so.  There were a host of other options but, instead, I opted to not pay attention to the contract of trust regarding the character and it’s narrative.  How much better would the scene had been had I respected that contract, had I reinforced that trust instead of kicking it out from underneath the player?  Thankfully, I’m still good friends with the player after that decision.

Though all this talk of invisible contracts may sound rather vague and a little too ethereal, you can get to this mindset easily.  Look around the table at the start of the game and realize, “Everyone here is trusting me with parts of themselves, with their personal creations.”  Think about that for a minute and then just internally sign those contracts.  Try to be present through the whole game of the levels of trust happening around the table as you go through the story of the session.

As a player, look for ways to boost another player and their character’s story.  Want the equivalent of a stage-dive trust fall?  Do something ridiculous to your character and look for other players to catch you.  Afterwards, turn around and catch other player’s characters when they jump off the stage next.   Look past your GM’s dungeon and try to get a feeling of what story they are trying to tell.   Look for the love and care put into the adventure and the setting and use your character to let the GM know you appreciate the story.

As a GM, put your creations, plot lines and monsters to the side and try to figure out how you can support your player’s and their ideas.  If it goes with the character’s story, let them kill that undead lich king you spent hours honing and for which you have 10 pages of back story written. Just make it a good scene and then go back and harvest another villain from those 10 pages later.  Don’t worry about fleshing out every detail of that three story tavern and inn you’ve fallen in love with and instead build  an adventure around part of a player character’s backstory.  Then, throw your tavern into that backstory.  If the characters begin moving in a different direction then what you had planned, keep that trust up and happily let them go in the new direction.  Don’t railroad them back to what you think is right.  Let them know they can trust you with aspects of their character.

Look around and find those contracts.  Sign them with a flourish and support each other around the table.

I think you will notice a difference in the feel of the game if you do.

How It Started

The late 70’s were big for me. I had my brain explode twice before 1980.  I had grown up with Star Trek episodes, Godzilla movies, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Daniel Boone and a little known science fiction show called Space 1999. During the summer of 1977 I had my eleven year old brain blown by watching Star Wars on the big screen and spent most every weekend afterwards figuring out ways to see it again and again and again and again.

At the end of the 1979 I went to visit a friend I had not seen in a while.  When we lived next to each other we had spent idyllic summer days in the yard behind his house chasing frogs and damning up the nearby creek. We played war with little green plastic men. We played cowboys and indians. We played daring knights and fought off monsters.  My parents had moved from the city and now lived two hours away in a much smaller town.  I’d not seen him for a long time and was excited to hang out with him again.

It was a Christmas-time visit during the holiday break.  The weather was cold and somewhat nasty so we played inside and caught up with each other.  For Christmas, his parents had given him some sort of weird new game he was excited about but which I had never seen. The box for the game was very colorful and featured a wizard and a knight confronting a dragon sitting on a mound of gold. It was called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Sitting on the floor together, my friend tried to explain the game to me and wanted to know if I wanted to make a “Character.”  He showed me a handful of very oddly shaped plastic dice.

“It’ll make more sense if we just play,” he said.

I didn’t understand but I agreed. He took me through the steps to make a wizard and we began to play. I entered into a creepy old dungeon and fought two rats and, later, some goblins. I fired off a magic missile for the first time. I found a treasure chest with some coins and a magic wand. Once I realized it was a game of make-believe I got excited.

My brain exploded for the second time.

Then my parents were coming to get me and it was time to go. He hurried me out of the dungeon, wrapping up my first adventure. I asked him where he found the game as I rushed to get my coat and shoes on. I needed to find a copy!  I needed to know more, to play more!  What about my wizard? What would happen next?

“I’ll use him as a character in the game I play with my older brother. When you come back you can play him again.”

My parents were pulling into the driveway.

“Where can I find this game? Where did you get it?”

“I don’t know where my parents got it. I really wanted it and told everyone about it.”

“But, where did they FIND IT?”

My parents were coming to the door. There were greetings and hellos. I would have to leave very soon.

“I don’t know but…” and my friend suddenly ran back into his room. He came back carrying a Dungeons and Dragons box set still in its shrink wrap . “Look, I asked for this so much I actually got two copies. We were going to take this one back but here… I want you to have it.”

I couldn’t believe it. “Really? Are you sure?”

My parents were calling me and it was time to go. It was the holidays. Family to visit. Meals to eat.

He smiled and pressed it into my hands, “Yes. This way when you come back to play again you’ll know what you’re doing.”  He laughed.

I thanked him profusely and left with my parents back out into the cold December air. He waved to me. I waved to him. “Look what he gave me, Mom! It’s really cool. It’s a new kind of game!” As we drove away, I had the box open and was looking over the items inside, flipping through the book.

It was the last time I would see my friend.

Time passed.  We didn’t make the two hour trip as often.  People change.  Kids don’t really have firm control of their destiny, let alone long drives.  Things shift.  Life takes you on different turns and then, before you know it, you have lost touch with someone.   That was before the internet and easy communication.

I went home and poured over the book.  I made a dungeon.  I made several characters. It was the holiday break and at the first opportunity I had a friend or two over and we started to play.  We played very badly but we played.  I discovered that a local hobby store in my small Indiana town carried some modules and books.  Over the next few years, I moved on to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and became a poster child for the Stranger Things cast.  I ran a game.  My buddy ran a game.  Then another buddy was running a game.   We talked about the game during lunch breaks at school.

You know how it goes, right?

And that’s how it all started.  From a simple, generous gift came a lifetime of creativity, stories, drawings, maps, friends, adventure, laughter and fun.  A simple act of generosity followed by infinite ripples of effect after effect flowing outward over the decades.

That’s how I want it to continue.

It’s the most important part.  It’s the bottom line behind this entire project and all that I have planned here.

It’s a gift.

I hope you like it.