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Author: Graham

An Unlikely Romance

Imagine a video game that practically begs me to write about it on this blog. What does it look like? Probably some kind of fantasy or science fiction lore that makes clever game mechanics seem like they belong in play. It is probably ripe for social commentary, has an interesting economic system, and allows a vast array of different play styles for any kind of player. It would most likely involve many players and include choices about what kind of character a player wants to be. Good or evil? Violent or pacifist? Nice or jerk? Any/all combinations would be possible.

Now imagine the absolute opposite of that game. You are probably imagining something closer to Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator than to the games I usually write about. But today, I am going to be writing about playing Dream Daddy precisely because it’s so different than anything I would normally pick up. I received it as a gift in late 2017, and now figure that it’s a good time (around Valentine’s Day) to do something related to romance.

First, I am going to admit to some not entirely justified assumptions I had going in. Dating simulator, I thought, am I some kind of angry basement troll looking to dull his loneliness by playing a game where I can pretend to practice basic decency and be duly rewarded with my very own anime waifu? There are probably many counter-examples, but that’s what I assumed about the genre. When I saw the gift in my Steam inventory I had to look at the store page, and it immediately struck me: this looks way too gay to appeal to that stereotype. I wasn’t going to be embarrassed to have my wife catching me playing this in the same way that I might if I was playing Sakura Spirit or something with an aesthetic like that. So I decided to give it a shot.

The first thing I noticed is that while “gay” and “dating sim” aren’t usually keywords that tag me as the target demographic, there is still an awful lot of fan service for me in there. Corny puns, clever meta-jokes, and pop culture references relevant to the late 1990s had me laughing several times in my first play session. It plays out like an interactive novel but unlike Dear Esther or Gone Home there isn’t much opportunity to linger on some things and skip others even as I progress through a linear plot. Most of my first session was spent clicking through endless dialogue and exposition. It was charming, but kind of odd that not a day after moving into my new neighbourhood it starts raining men.

Hallelujah!

The first encounter I chose after the long introduction made it seem like I could not possibly mess this up, that I was just being offered the chance to say three different nice things. However, upon exploring more of the different options from the main “dadbook” screen, I found that there are some things the player-dad can do that will upset one of his new friends. I didn’t do too badly at that, though I was miserable at most of the minigames and the trivia contest. Things got a bit heavy when pursuing the Joeseph storyline and I had to quit for the day. I appreciated the effective use of the fade-to-black to avoid being too explicit on the intimacy, but the game did not pull any punches when it came to getting real about depression and societal expectations of men. It’s not all cheery colour palettes and cheesy jokes.

From what I can conclude so far, not having played through every possible ending, I would say that it was one of the strangest games I have played but it was rather entertaining. I had many laughs. But no matter how much xennial bait and silly puns that a person could cram into an interactive narrative, I don’t think I will be returning to this genre any time soon. I can, however, say that I should be better about making assumptions because this was far more fun than I would have assumed it could be.

The Real World of Online Harassment

When I saw that the first speaker in the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series was going to be Anita Sarkeesian talking about The Real World of Online Harassment I made sure to set a reminder so that I could buy tickets as soon as humanly possible. I don’t know how long it took to sell out; it may not have been necessary to jump on that six minutes after they went on sale. But I know I did not want to worry about it because a talk like this could not be more relevant to my interests. I am not going to rehash what was done to her in this space. You probably already know, and if you don’t, you don’t have to take my word for it. But she began the talk by saying that she would much rather be known for what she does, rather than what was done to her. And what she does is very important: she is not talking about misogyny within the confines of academia using language that most people don’t understand. Just as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson are bigger as communicators than they are as scientists, I think one of the most important things about her work is that it speaks to ordinary people and talks about things that are important to us like our video games. Being effective at engaging such a broad audience is something that is very difficult to do. I think she did a fine job of this on Wednesday evening, but it was inevitable that not everyone can be engaged in the same way at the same time. I have found the same thing about reading Crash Override: I find many parts of it very interesting. But then they have to take a step back to explain things to the parts of the audience that have not been closely following this subject matter for many years. It’s not exactly news to me that Twitter exists and has woefully inadequate mechanisms to protect people from harassment, or that there are men who feel way too threatened by the existence of “other” people in the gaming world, or that people say terrible things on the internet. And while my greatest fear did not come to pass (nobody tried to be disruptive), I did find that some parts of the talk were going over things that I already considered part of the historical record. I don’t have a good solution for this; whether presentations of this nature should be split into introductory and advanced versions as if they were academic courses I don’t know. But if I was pressed to find something about Wednesday’s talk that I didn’t like then I would say that it would have been more interesting if there was even more about the more recent work she is doing and a little less of the history that we can learn from watching that TED Talk I linked to and various other online sources (excluding the smear pieces, of course). I also would have been interested in hearing more about what we can do in the post Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games era to pick up the torch and continue forward.


This still hasn’t happened, despite Tropes vs. Women in Video Games having been around for five years.

This is not to say that I left empty-handed. Well, I guess I did in the literal sense because it was ideas that I took from the presentation. I didn’t leave empty-headed? Anyway, I did receive the message loud and clear that I need to read/watch lots of things that Alan G. Johnson wrote/said. I especially liked the clip that Anita played on Wednesday of Alan talking about monopoly. My only other encounter with his work is when he is referenced in Wall-E as Sociological Storytelling which no doubt inspired what I wrote about Monopoly in June in reference to what is happening in Canada. I don’t know how I managed to write that post without at least a nod to one of those sources. Though my style of blogging deliberately favours conversational tone over citation-rich academic style writing, I should still be giving credit where it is due. Anyway, what Alan says about the game certainly did resonate with my thoughts on games in general and I need to spend more time with his work and engage with systems theory as it related to gaming.

The other thing that I am taking away from this is the importance of not staying silent. It was a little bit upsetting when Anita revealed that she almost didn’t come as I really did enjoy the speech and not just because she made fun of Toronto at one point (the only way she could have played to the Edmonton audience harder would have been if she did the same thing but wore an Oilers jersey while doing it). I would have been really disappointed if I didn’t get to hear this talk. But the fact is that Anita didn’t owe us this. I am glad she did it, but if the ideas of rising against hatred instead of remaining silent about it in our gaming spaces are to stay alive and continue to grow stronger then this issue can’t be about Anita Sarkeesian, or Zoë Quinn or any other individual person. It can’t be left to a few individuals who are already carrying a wildly disproportionate amount of responsibility and expectation for counteraction of hate in the gaming world. The ideas will be stronger when they cease to be about humans who can sometimes be fallible. I don’t mindlessly agree with everything these women are saying and writing about harassment in the gaming world even when they are at their best. But the ideas, those don’t get frazzled or misspeak or have bad days that can be exploited by malicious critics. I have before and affirm again today that I will not resign to the acceptance that the internet is a dumpster fire that cannot be put out or cleaned up. My spotlight may be very small compared to others, but I still intend to use what I’ve got to detoxify my tiny area of the gaming world. If I am to be known for what I did rather than what I was, I hope that it be that my writing has contributed to a much larger force of public opinion that eventually made this sort of harassment a thing of the past. The presentation from Wednesday has renewed my enthusiasm for this. If that is not time and money well spent then I don’t know what is.

 

There Is A Good Chance I May Have Committed Some Light Cheating

Cheating sounds like a bad word. In video games is a good way to get yourself instantly banned from popular online services. But what is cheating when it comes to recreational video games? When there is potentially money on the line it could be an issue of basic fairness, but in a private instance of a game where no money or fame is on the line it is merely a self-imposed standard not to spoil the game. Those who remember the video games of the 90’s and early 00’s can probably still name their favourite cheat codes. In the hands of a person who is simply playing (rather than testing, demonstrating, or reviewing) the game these are basically spoilers: you can get on with the plot, see the “victory” screen and all that without being subjected to the challenges inherent in the game. This, in itself, is not immoral. Only when one brags about having beat the game does it become so, and in that case, it’s not the dodging of the rules itself but attempting to lie to people about how you got to the end. For oneself, the only reason not to cheat is to be able to enjoy the game as it was intended and to preserve your own belief that you are progressing fair and square.

But what about a sandbox-ish game where there isn’t an “end” where the credits roll and the game is over? In Your Own Objectives I wrote about what I am doing in Terraria where there is a boss monster progression but the building and crafting game is largely up to the player to decide what their goals are. In pursuit of my goal of ridding the world of the crimson blight legitimately (that is, within the play of the game rather than simply deleting it with a third-party map editor), I hit a wall at 1% as reported by the Dryad NPC. I thoroughly excavated large areas of the world in an effort to eradicate the crimson. But, eventually, the reality that I can’t spend all of my time tracking down that one last block I missed caused me to break down and download a map viewer called TerraMap. I used that to highlight all remaining crimson tiles. It showed me where that one last block was, as seen in the screenshot below.

See the red thing? No, not the arrow. That is the cursor. Right under my character.

I went and removed that one tiny little piece of red ice. But, when I went back to the Dryad, she still reported that my world was 1% crimson. How can that possibly be?!? I went back to TerraMap. The only thing it highlighted were not terrain blocks, but the locations of various chests, and then it finally occurred to me: the reason the chests were being highlighted was that the Dryad was reporting on the crimstone blocks inside the chests. I never would have guessed this if I had dug out every last one of the approximately five million blocks in a small world if TerraMap had not given me the hint. None of the forums and wikis that I usually use as a companion to the game ever mentioned blocks inside of chests. Now, armed with that knowledge, I was able to go through and dispose of the blighted blocks that were safely ensconced in boxes but counted nevertheless. The Dryad now reports complete purity of the world.

Was that cheating more than using the wiki to look up crafting recipes instead of manually presenting materials to the Guide NPC inside the game? More than when I found this forum post that tells a person how to make horizontal tunnels through sand in apparent defiance of how sand is supposed to work in the game? Yes, in the sense that the map editor did not merely relay general knowledge but actually read data from game files and presented it in a way not possible within the game itself. If I was absolutely true to my original goal of making a tamed world without reducing it to pixel art created in a map editor then I sure did cheat. However, as far as my enjoyment of the game goes, it is infinitely greater than if I had insisted on continuing the hunt for the last block even after that angled ice block pictured above was found. And I don’t use that word lightly: if I had stuck to my goal without giving up AND stuck to an absolute standard of purity then my enjoyment of the game would have been zero. So take any number of seconds I will spend enjoying the game from this point forward, then divide by zero.

So, back to building pyramids for now. Will I load up TerraMap again? I can’t promise I won’t. But neither do I think that the ongoing project of a small world that is completely under control will be illegitimate if I need a second hint in the event that my post-hardmode world has one of those tiny angled blocks that escape the cleantaminator sweeps. There are things I am willing to do in pursuit of an in-game goal, and things I would be willing to “cheat” to avoid if it leads to less spoiling of the enjoyment of the game rather than more.

Annus Revelati

At this time last year I was writing one of those retrospective posts lamenting the year that was. I’m not going to sit here and list all the horrific plays in political games around the world we saw this year. Almost everything that has excited and outraged us has been as surprising as a sunrise given the events of late 2016. Every violation of the rule of law and basic decency coming from the most powerful office in the most powerful country in the world should be no surprise to anyone who was paying attention to 2016. That we now have unscrupulous players in Canada and other countries looking to imitate that example is as predictable as it is appalling. Yet despite all this I believe that rather than an annus horribilis, 2017 has been an annus revelati. If my Google/Wiktionary-based Latin skills are good enough, that should mean a year of showing, uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. We cannot help but see now what has been under the surface, whether it was intentionally obscured or simply invisible to those who chose not to see. This has been the year that we have been reminded of some of the things we have to take into play rather than take for granted as axiomatic truths.

As important as it is to keep the big picture in mind, it is very important that we also see the brighter things even if they seem very small in a very large world. For me personally, 2017 saw a number of happy events yet none of these were really new things. I got married, which showed the rest of the world the love that my partner and I hold between ourselves. Though in some ways it can be considered a new beginning, it was a fulfilment of the engagement that happened in 2016. I formally joined a Unitarian Universalist church, though I had been interested in the faith and attending services throughout 2016. I welcomed a second author to this blog halfway through the year who has been a HUGE help in making this project manageable at this time in my life. That, too, was suggested to me just as I was first starting: bring in guest posts sooner rather than later so that it seems less weird when it happens. It took a while, but I am glad that I did that with Alastair’s series. I got back in the DM’s chair during Extra Life, but I have spent more time talking about wanting to run more tabletop adventures than actually doing it in 2017. That adventure, naturally, revolved around revealing the sordid truth about the temple that loomed large over a destitute village.

The most exciting part of a tabletop adventure’s plot is usually some sort of revealing of the truth.

So, looking back on the year that has passed, everything that has happened in my world has been about revealing and uncovering the nature and consequences of what was already set in motion. Now it is time to look forward and think about what to do with what has been revealed. I believe that we can affect games much larger than ourselves by how we play our little games, whether recreational pastimes or the game of life as it plays out for our small individual lives. These are my recommendations to my readers for the year of 2018 CE on how we can work to improve our play:

  • Defend, but don’t play defence. Innuendo Studios is doing a fantastic series called the alt-right playbook, and in Never Play Defense we are reminded that a person can be effective without being right if they are playing aggressively. I’m not saying that you should ditch substance for bravado, but boldness is a better look than apologetic hesitation. I recently had the opportunity to inform someone at a game table that I am certain that my Romani friend would never attempt to “gyp” him of any points that he is due. Making this matter-of-fact statement was far more effective than something that started with “Sorry, but I am offended by…” There is no need to allow yourself and your loved ones to be attacked nor is there any need to turtle up and yield all of your ground. Now is the best time to speak up at your gaming table when someone is doing or saying something that could put you on the defensive and renew your efforts to be deliberate in what media to (not) consume. And, if you are so inclined, support Innuendo Studios.
  • Don’t apologize for what you are (not). Following that, when someone goes name-calling, embrace the ones that should not be an insult in the first place. A lot of what I write in this space might be labelled as “social justice warrior” ranting even though in terms of 4th/5th edition D&D classes I am probably more of a warlock than a fighter. But seriously, why should I yield this ground? I endeavour not to be antisocial. I detest injustice. I believe in fighting for what is right. Getting upset over labels only derails my intent and delivers the desired reaction to the sort of person who would wield such a so-called insult (refer again to the video linked above). So be a social justice warrior, or evangelical Christian, or whatever words people say in disdainful tones that, at face value, actually represent the kind of person you aspire to be.
  • Let go of the notion that everyone agrees with your rules. If you have not learned this again and again in 2017, then you have not been paying attention. The notion of a “marketplace of ideas” and quotes attributed to Voltaire about free speech are fine when an overwhelming majority of people in a society can agree on the basic rules surrounding minimal human decency and the existence of immutable facts which cannot be changed by the volume and repetition of spurious zingers. You can’t play a game with those who won’t agree to the rules. No fair play is possible when the torch-wielding mob is out to cause havoc. Such people must be dealt with in a different manner than people who can agree to a good set of basic rules but with whom you profoundly disagree with when it comes to how to solve particular problems.
  • Embrace a little bit of swagger. Remember that while your stated beliefs don’t make you a better person, telling the truth does. Your tweets don’t make you a better person, but playing fair does. The colour of your political party’s campaign signs does not make you a better person, but holding people accountable for their behaviour especially when it’s a popular person on your team does. So when you can be certain that you are doing and saying the right thing, do it openly and proudly. There is no reason to pretend that fair play, the rule of just law, and respecting the fundamental worth and dignity of every person aren’t for winners.
  • Read Crash Override. I am just getting started on it now, but the subject matter is really important. And it doesn’t matter what you think of Zoë Quinn personally. If you want to be a critic, be an informed critic. Know about the things you disagree with. Learn about (sub)cultures that you haven’t really been concerned with up to this point. But also, being sympathetic doesn’t excuse ignorance either; it is important to know what you are up against and what you can do to help. Games matter. The internet matters. Internet and gaming culture matter. These are important parts of, not distractions from what we call real life.

If a few more people do a few more of those things, I believe that 2018 will be a brighter year, even if just by a little bit.

Your Own Objectives

My wife was recently insisting to me that success should be self-defined rather than looking for external validation. Those aren’t easy words to hear for a man who is several weeks into trying to install a laundry sink, who is still in the middle of a long litany of leaks and return trips to the hardware store. That laundry sink which he could have paid someone to install, but was talked out of the service by the sales staff at the hardware store because it’s so simple and easy for anyone to install. In that light it’s easy to dismiss the notion of setting one’s own victory conditions because leaking fixtures don’t care what your personal goals are, they leak anyway. Yet neither of the two recreational games I have been playing to the exclusion of any others in recent weeks have such clearly defined success and failure conditions. They are both games that one wouldn’t play without the desire to set one’s own objectives. I haven’t been getting into any new-to-me video games (Alastair has that covered for now), but have been continuing to play two of the three most mentioned video games on this blog, Terraria and EVE. If you were hoping for an Undertale post this week, tough spaghetti. And in keeping with my commitment to this being a games blog that sometimes mentions EVE rather than an EVE blog that sometimes mentions other games, that leaves us with Terraria.

Surviving the first night in a hut like this is a good initial step, but don’t award yourself any medals for an accomplishment of this scale.

Some finite games have very clear victory conditions. The “sandbox” type games don’t have a specified end or victory condition and are only limited by the constraints of the medium and the amount of time we can spend with them. When the choice is placed upon us of how to measure progress it can be difficult to get the balance right. Victory conditions should be a challenge; merely surviving one night in Terraria is a good first step, but that’s not winning the game. However, victory conditions should not be impossible for mere mortals either, such as the complete purification of a large Terraria world from the ever-expanding blights (corruption, crimson, and hallow). Perhaps some of the linear content (such as fighting through the series of boss monsters) is the most obvious goal, but I don’t think that’s what sold 20 million copies of the game.

I abandoned my first medium-sized world because I knew that I wanted the blight to be under control but would never have the time and motivation to bring a world of that size back under control after letting it go for as long as I did. So I created a small world and got to work on using my advanced gear to immediately contain the crimson. I didn’t get it perfect, but seems to be stable at 1% crimson. My objective is not necessarily to play through all the boss monsters, though that is a perfectly valid goal. Having defeated Golem in my first world, I was able to assemble one of the best defensive armour sets available in the game yet once I summoned Duke Fishron I was quickly dispatched. At that point I decided that I would rather build for a while. Now, knowing that constructing one large base is more optimal than building a village of houses, I have a glorious tower.

The workshop section of the tower that runs from the very top of the map into the underworld.

It’s a great base as far as I am concerned. It houses all of my NPC allies. Every storage area is labelled (a big deal to those whose first workshops grew organically from one workbench and a single chest into a tangled mess of hoarding). In other sections of the tower, using the quirks of the fluid physics in that game, I can generate an endless supply of any of the three liquids (lava, water, and honey). My materials lab can also put out an endless supply of gel, an important crafting ingredient for torches and bombs. I also have a spider nest cordoned off that generates what I need to produce silk. Essentially, if a crafting material can be farmed, I can do it in this tower.

Water, lava, and honey are the three liquids in Terraria which can be combined to make materials such as obsidian. This is my setup for being able to manufacture whatever I need without having to search the world for materials.

All of this to say: the way I play the game is not according to a scoreboard or number of boss monsters defeated. The goal of building a home base to do these things was entirely up to me to conceive, achieve, and evaluate. I can show off my stuff, as I am doing in this post, but it’s not for anyone else to decide whether this is success or failure at playing this game. External validation is possible, but the way I choose to play the game makes it unnecessary to the core experience.

Who needs to explore deep caverns to find the glowing mushroom material for crafting? Not this guy.

Things seem to be going well with setting my own objectives in this particular game. Next on the list is to build some impressive pyramids (to fill the holes I made in excavating the crimson caves) because my world didn’t generate with a natural pyramid. I may even resume fighting the boss monsters as intended one day, but for now I am getting back to improving the tower instead of working on the sink.

Part of Something Bigger

Sometimes we play games that are extremely limited in scope. There is one way to finish a game of cribbage, by following the one track you are on to the finish line. Even chess, though there are so many ways of getting there, has only two endings (checkmate or stalemate). This is good if one wants to be finished with the game in a short amount of time. In order to be passionate about something like that, though, there must be another level to the game. Perhaps you are looking to increase your Elo rating to advance competitively, or to enjoy a brief moment of glory among family and friends before it’s time to move on. But it’s not the win itself that drives excitement, it’s the bigger picture whether it’s a score and a formal title or building and maintaining relationships. To be passionate about these games one must look at each instance of the game as part of something bigger.

A fleet taking down a player-owned starbase in EVE Online.

Other games, generally the ones I write about a lot, lend themselves to making the player feel like they are indeed participating in something that is bigger than their own experience. This is one reason that I appreciate games with immersive plots and storylines: it makes me feel like other things are going on in the in-game universe other than what is here and now in front of my face. Another way is to offer a chance to explore a world, as one can in the Elder Scrolls series. But in my experience, the most effective way to keep a game going indefinitely is to weave the social experience into the game itself. The tabletop RPG does this by ensuring that the boundaries of the game are malleable. Not that a dungeon crawl is an invalid play style, but that reminds me more of the single-instance games I mentioned at the start of this post. The campaigns we tell stories about are usually the ones that involve more than violence against the undead and making it to the end of the dungeon. The ones we remember tend to be the ones where the social interaction shaped the experience more than the dice or the rule book. Lastly, the MMO sandbox has clearly defined rules but leaves the objective and the ends up to the player.

Why did I spend an evening participating in the fleet pictured above and below? It wasn’t because of anything in particular to do with getting a structure kill on a scoreboard or what was inside that base. It was because I was a part of a corporation and I want to have good standing in that small team. I want my corporation to advance within our alliance and be a part of building that. I want that alliance to be successful because I believe in the values they profess to uphold. It’s all about being part of something bigger than my own ISK wallet and ship hangar.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

So, if you like to be done with games in the space of minutes or hours, play something limited in scope. If you like persistent games, I think the key is to fully engage with the story and/or social aspects because those are the things that make the player part of something bigger. And, incidentally, if you play EVE and really liked that code of conduct that I linked, recruitment is open.

The Temple

I went into last week’s Swords and Wizardry one-shot with one goal in mind: have a miserable village beside a resplendent temple, and make that the result of a magical glamour. That’s all. No maps, no written notes, just an idea stemming from a similar visual in Path of Exile when my witch said something like “I wonder what manner of magic this is” when she stepped into the Lunaris Temple for the first time. I sketched a crude map and added some names I plucked from an Uncharted Atlas map and had the players start rolling up some characters. My ideas were far from original, but that’s not necessary for tabletop improv. I just needed something that could move.

The players, whose characters were a loosely formed mercenary squad who banded together to deal with a bandit crisis but were dismissed as soon as things calmed down, dutifully reported to the tavern (because of course) where they heard that the patron of the temple was sponsoring a witch hunt. I was hoping that the phrase “witch hunt” would arouse some suspicion about his motives, but nobody grabbed onto that hook immediately. So I ran with it, knowing that whenever there is a way to play straight into the villains hands, players sometimes jump at the chance. Sometimes they should know better, sometimes it is unwitting, but a DM must always be prepared for the response “OK, sure!” when the villain is making demands.

I decided that there would be three sets of witches, of increasing difficulty. The first would put up more fight than one adventurer could handle, but having seven was complete overkill. The second I would make a relatively even match, and then the third would be as difficult as the rules suggest is possible. This would give the party an opportunity for some pause during the witch hunt, and hopefully to find a reason to cast Detect Magic, which was critically important to discovering that the temple was a lie. I had read the description of the spell ahead of time and decided that this would be the tell: if a person could see magic, they would see that there is something deeply wrong with one of the relics in the temple. It was not until after the first witch was killed, beheaded, and her hut set on fire that the magic-user found the occasion to cast that spell.

Character sheets for old-school D&D can be fairly simple, which is an advantage when you have one night to run an adventure from start to finish.

It was only after meeting the second witch, this time a pair, that the adventurers started to turn sides. Perhaps it was because it was readily apparent that these were more powerful than the last, as they reacted with annoyance rather than fear when a squad of heavily armed men and women showed up on their doorstep. Perhaps it was lingering remorse over not even trying to ask questions of the first one. Whatever it was, it was back to what I had expected would be the main plot of discovering the illusion. Because I didn’t take the time to prepare (a common DM sin) I felt that I was spending more time than I should have consulting the rule book. After a few awkward pauses (“you are on the road to the temple, please chat amongst yourselves while I frantically look something up”), I found that a single ogre-mage appeared to have hit dice suggesting that it would be an appropriate challenge for a party of seven. I quickly split the abilities and HD evenly into two creatures, there being two witches, but didn’t get to use this information yet because the adventurers decided not to continue the witch hunt.

Like many references, the Swords and Wizardry book offers information about antagonists who are primarily monstrous beasts who fight physically, rather than the humanoid spellcasters I was looking for. I had the same problem with the 4th Edition Monster Vault, though they saw fit to include a few things that aren’t instinct-driven dangerous cryptids. In the case of this adventure, the first witch was a blink dog according to the statistics provided in the Swords and Wizardry book.

The second set of witches sent the players back to the patron with a cursed scroll (looted from the last group of failed witch hunters who came through), which I rolled for the effect based on the table in the rule book. I was hoping for something immediate and decisive, whether instant death or emitting a strong odour for several days. In retrospect, I probably should have just declared it to be something like that rather than rolling on the table since the experience drain effect sent me back to the rule book trying to figure out what that means to a monster rather than to a player character. Once I came up with a way to handle it (pretend that the patron was going to be more powerful than he was, but that this scroll level drained him to the actual stats I had), the party started to dismantle the illusion. This provoked an angry response from the patron, who now had a matron counterpart.

See, I had those numbers for an ogre-mage in two persons and I wasn’t about to stop the action again to figure out how the patron should fight. So that is where the matron came from. The players even asked where she came from, did we meet her before? The answer, unfortunately, was uh yeah, she was around the whole time. She wasn’t.  She was an invention to make the action keep going as we were coming to the end of the fifth hour and it was time to move on to something else. It was time for a triumphant battle of… wait, no it wasn’t, this is old-school D&D where heroic plot lines are not guaranteed. It was time for the villain to cast sleep on everyone and get out alive. The players woke up and returned to town to find that the second pair of witches left the area after they destroyed the home of the potion merchant who was sympathetic to the patron’s witch hunt. With their job complete, the players’ party moved on. In my world, other people have other adventures while you are out having yours. The game may revolve around the players, but the world doesn’t need to. In case you were wondering, the plan for the third witch was to have a steampunk-ish gnome in a giant mecha suit. I try not to keep every cool idea on the “good” path.

So, what do I take from this experience? Swords and Wizardry is good for one-shots. Never neglect to keep different paths valid, whether “good” or “evil.” A DM does not need a detailed map or backstory, but combat statistics should absolutely be prepared beforehand. One good setting idea is better than all the written lore in the world. And lastly, never count on a large group of players to play their characters in a morally and ethically consistent manner. There is still a witch’s head in the possession of a fraudulent patron who is still at large, somewhere.

The Partial Success

“Here, try reading this,” my dad says. He is, in his retirement, enrolled in Latin classes. He hands me a printout of a passage that he had been looking at for his class. Not being fluent in any of the modern Latin languages, let alone the original, I certainly was not able to understand the whole thing. But between the cognates between English and Latin, cultural and scientific loan words, and cognates with the little French and Spanish that I have dabbled in, I was able to make out a few of the words.

Libro, Satyricon, celebrato, monstrum, lupus, ferrous, argentum. I don’t read or speak Latin, didn’t understand that it was a reference to a specific tale of a werewolf, but I managed to figure out that the passage was a reference to a book full of monstrous beasts of fantasy. My immediate thought was that I wish I did more of this at the D&D table. I think there is an unfortunate tendency towards the simplification of interpreting languages that aren’t “Common” which is a euphemism for English. Players are usually eager to check their character sheets to see if, by virtue of being a Dwarf, that it was Goblin or Giant or Orcish that they are assumed to be able to speak. But without the rule book saying that their character by virtue of race or class speaks the language fluently, the player might give up right away.

What about Giant? Can someone try talking to them in Giant? No? How about Goblin?

I can also appreciate as a DM who has definitely run some sessions with less time to prepare than what was desired, that it is a lot of work to either plan or improvise these extra steps rather than calling for an intelligence check, picking a number between one and twenty, and then either giving the player the page from your notes detailing what the ancient stele has written on it, or give them nothing if they fail. However, there are some things when it comes to extra effort on the DM’s part that makes more of a difference than others. As much as I like making visual maps, I have to admit that it’s not the highest priority a DM should have. One thing that I think does make a big difference is allowing for the partial success. An experience like the one I had in real life can make things really interesting. Think about it… rather than just having a scroll of unintelligible writing in their inventory, your players could get: something something vampire, something something cave, something something priestess. Even without expertise and/or the favour of the dice, this could be enough to keep them going on a (mis)adventure.

I don’t know if this is going to make it into the very next game that I run, but I do hope to remember that little moment I had when challenging players to try and make some sense of something that isn’t written in their everyday language. Overcoming a challenge should not always be an all-or-nothing scenario, especially not when it’s trying to pick apart a written text at the characters’ leisure. I think a really good DM is one who can make partial successes the most meaningful rather than reducing the game to rolling high numbers on polyhedral dice. As a player I would certainly rather go ahead with a partial success than be told “no” and get stuck because of that 3 on a d20. In a game of fantasy we’re certainly foolish to expect everything to be “realistic” but a little dash of realism here and there to make it feel like the character’s situation is a life that a person could live helps players feel more invested in their characters than in their dice.


Today (November 4, 2017) is officially the game day for Extra Life, but my team is holding our private event next week. If you have not yet done so, please consider clicking here to contribute to my page. Note that this year I decided to try something different and play in support of the CMN hospital in Puerto Rico because I am sure they can use some extra help. I will play for my home town again next year. I don’t know how long after official game day that my donation page will be available, so if you have the means and the inclination please don’t delay any further.

Next week, Alastair continues his Full Steam Ahead series with Street Fighter IV. If all goes well with running a tabletop adventure with my Extra Life group, I will post all of the DM’s notes with additional commentary on November 18th.

The Intrigue

Last weekend I was at IntrigueCon 2017. You can find my write-up about last year here. This year I didn’t sign up for any games in advance, which meant I had to play whatever had open seats. Of the four sessions I attended, three were variants on old-school D&D and one was a variant of Dungeon Crawl Classics called Mutant Crawl Classics (which doesn’t seem to have its own page on the website, though you can find the books in their store).

The thing that I noticed about playing Swords and Wizardry as well as getting to play Sftabhmonton, an OSR-type game that I mentioned last year, was that the potential of becoming a hero is always there, but low level characters are utterly disposable. MCC, in contrast, is unapologetic about being a meat grinder. What I really found intriguing about these different games I tried last weekend was the relative ease that a party can form and get going, without having a dedicated session for character building or establishing a plot. The rewards for most of the characters I played, though, was death.

Later editions of D&D lay out a clearer path to rewards, which can be good because I find very few adults with adult responsibilities are up for taking years upon years to finally get a shot at something that can be taken away in an instant by a snotty DM who jumps on you the one time you forget to specify every inch of the floor you are going to check with your trusty ten foot pole. We want to feel like out time is worth more than that. The older games, though, don’t hand out a reliable payoff. It is difficult in these retro versions of D&D to keep a single character alive. The increase in risk does mean an increase in reward, as a high level OSR-type character is actually something to be marvelled at, rather than some powerful hero who has spent a few dozen sessions with DMs who hand out levels and XP like candy (I have been one of those on more than one occasion, especially when running 4e campaigns).

Two of my four character sheets. I invested too much effort into making Tybalt a cat-type manimal; he died instantly at the start of the first encounter.

Whether or not it’s worth going old school instead of getting in on a D&D-brand game using the relatively newer rules really depends on what a player is looking for. A satisfying heroic romp through a complex story including a nice epilogue? Or an evolving story, that has to grow on its own because investing too much into making unique characters with well-written backstories is unreasonably risky in an old-school game? I can see the appeal of both, though I have to admit that the least satisfying end to a character is when a DM punishes me for not checking every square inch of the dungeon for fatal traps. The one time I forget to say that I check the ceiling, or the whole doorway rather than just the door, and it’s all over? Congratulations, you’re oh so clever, and that’s several hours of my life that I will never get back. If I am invested in the narrative I don’t want the game to actively interfere with my enjoyment of that narrative. It’s not to say that I want it to be free of challenge, but I want failures to mean something. Even if goals become achievable or the character dies I want to feel like there was a reason that it happened if I have spent time and effort in building up a character who is part of a story rather than just a game piece to move through a dungeon. In the longer games that I run I have to work on making a valid path that includes failure rather than softly ensuring that my players win all the time because that’s how I want the story to go.

But, for being able to sit down with no prior relationship to the DM or the other characters, and no intention of ever playing more than one session, I have to say that I really quite enjoyed the games I played and will be looking into running some for groups that aren’t going to meet weekly for several months. One such opportunity I hope to take advantage of is when I get together with my Extra Life team in November to play some games. If you have not already done so, please consider making a contribution on my page.

Alastair continues Full Steam Ahead next week with Half-Life Deathmatch: Source.

Money: Progress or Property

So, I wanted to talk a bit about money last week, but being rather ill forced me to phone it in with the hype list. Money is something I always find a bit difficult to manage within games (within real life is a whole other topic). In the past two weeks I have become richer than I have ever been in EVE Online, yet have played very little. On the tabletop, I struggle with ensuring that players feel rewarded while making it so that magic daggers can’t be traded for castles and the like (an especially potent problem in 4e, where mundane items ran in the ones of gold pieces and the really cool items run into the millions).

I think part of it has to do with figuring out whether money is supposed to represent property or progress. In EVE Online, I have noted that it is a measure of property. The most profitable activity I engaged in was coming across the randomized location of a very lucrative, very difficult to clear NPC combat site (The Maze, for those familiar). I did not receive this as a reward from grinding away; it was like finding an object on the side of the road. Pure dumb luck. Now, not being a big shot myself, I was not about to risk going in there. I sold the information on the location for quick cash, which was huge compared to what I had. That location was equivalent to property, much like the old motorcycle I just sold in real life. Money for ownership of a thing, be it a tangible object or quantified access to valuable information. The precise value in currency is not always guaranteed and you can always lose the thing.

Kill the horde of monsters, pick up the stuff, trade it for fragments of orbs, use the orbs to make better stuff. The currency items in PoE are more a measure of progress than property.

In another game I’ve been playing and talking about lately, Path of Exile, money seems to be more a measure of progress. It is not completely free from the whims of the random number generator, but I can reliably predict that I can grind long enough to get the crap items to trade for the crafting items to use on the high quality mundane items to make my super equipment of death. To get more shards/orbs/etc. I must grind, but never can I unexpectedly lose these items either. It becomes, therefore, a measure less of property than of progress in grinding my character into something more powerful than she already is.

So, when it comes to tabletop, I think it is important for the DM to be straight with the players: that family sword you went on about in your backstory… could an old naked man conceivably steal it? In a heroic fantasy that sort of crap ruins the game. But if the players are into it, then such a surprise encounter could be far more intriguing than just running through the campaign with the monster lists and treasure packets and just accumulating more stuff free of risk. Because remember, if one group always wins, one group is always subject to atrocity. And that might not be as bad as it sounds if you can successfully pull off creating cartoonishly evil villains without making it into something with unfortunate implications. Or at least if you do fall into that pit, make the most of it and challenge the party to actually think about what they’ve done to “monsters” and if that money is as clean as they think it is…


Oh and one last note about money, if you haven’t supported my Extra Life Campaign in 2017 please consider doing so.