Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Feminist ethics and hobby gaming

Disclaimer:  This is not an article about political correctness.  I'm not telling anyone what to think or how to act, and if you have a problem with the notion of feminism in general, either you don't understand feminism, or you are a generally reprehensible human being.  Feminism is about social justice and equality for everyone.

It seems like the cultural dialogue has been shifting lately towards a greater awareness of the issues of systemic, casual misogyny that pervades many levels of our lives.  That statement might simply be a reflection of my own process of feminism-informed self-discovery, but I think a case can be made that it's bigger than that.  The issues surrounding reproductive rights and healthcare reform is one of the strongest catalysts for this change in dialogue, but there are other factors at work here as well.

Briefly, my own history with feminism started in college, but it wasn't until grad school that I actually studied it academically.  As an up-and-coming psychotherapist, one of my areas of inquiry was in feminist psychology and psychotherapy.  This discipline has less to do with women's minds specifically, and more to do with understanding of gender dynamics and their implications in relationships and societal structures.  I worked with a population of young adolescent males who were often survivors of abuse by male caregivers, and the tangled mat of misogynistic values that had taken root in their psyches was often deep and thick.  Recently, I've been taking a more sociological approach, rather than a psychological one, trying to understand the implications of gender dynamic in different cultural systems.

To a lot of gamer guys, myself included, women in gaming are seen as some kind of holy grail, and the universally spoken opinion would seem to be that we want more women as active participants in our hobbies.  There's a stronger female showing in role-playing games than in tabletop wargames, and addressing why that is probably warrants a few posts of its own.  But because I am male, and the population of this hobby is so overwhelmingly male, the main crux of this article is going to largely deal with what I perceive to be the attitudes of male hobby participants.

We want more women in gaming, but how welcoming are we, really?  How willing are we to examine our own attitudes and seriously reflect on the subtext we're conveying through action and word?  How willing are we to change our own minds about the thought patterns that give rise to these deeds and words?  Why do we want more women around in our hobby?

The sad fact that I've observed, both as a participant and a game store employee, is that a lot of guys' appreciation for a woman in the shop starts and ends right around chest-level.  If a pretty lady is in the store, guys get excited because boobs.  That's okay, that's reasonable, that's expected.  If she has a well-painted tyranid army, it's that much more exciting because now she has something in common with us, a shared interest that makes her conversationally accessible.  But it's startling how frequently the assessment stops right there, and the cognitive picture created of this woman is boobs and tyranids.  This is a form of objectification, and it is a type of casual misogyny.  It is not bothering to be open to the human potential of this person specifically because of their gender characteristics.  It is relegating them to a role in your life on a strictly hormonal level, rather than allowing your social dynamic to be informed by this person's thoughts, feelings, attitudes, or other social characteristics.

This is how women leave the hobby.  When they are at a tournament or pick-up game night, or otherwise just in the shop, they observe these attitudes in action.  They see guys talking to other guys about the hobby, and they find that their ability to participate in that conversation is limited by the men that listen with half an ear.  Or the men that listen insincerely, enjoying the attention of a woman without bothering to enjoy the content of the interaction.

As a psychologist, I learned that the amount of information we have to process in order to have even the most basic social interaction is absolutely staggering.  Gender figures into that quantity in profound ways; it is not simply one simple piece of data.  It is years and years of social information, absorbed and reprocessed by a constantly-active subconscious.  There is no way for your preconceived notions of gender (or race, culture, appearance, ability, etc) to NOT inform your social interactions, it's simply how our brains are wired.

The first and most simple step is to spend some time really thinking about how your own mind approaches gender issues.  Self-awareness and being willing to critically think about where you could stand to grow a bit is a useful personal exercise regardless.  If you're uncomfortable with a topic or idea, challenge yourself to determine why.

We share this hobby because it's something we love and enjoy.  The ultimate goal is pure, honest, innocent fun.  I believe that the noblest calling in the hobby is helping someone else deepen their enjoyment of this thing that they love to do, and helping to create a warm, welcoming environment for everyone is where that all starts.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Online World of Darkness game

I'm working on a Roll20 campaign for White Wolf's Orpheus, and was considering inviting some absolute strangers to play.  It's not going to go live for a while, it's more of a prospective work-in-progress at the moment.

If you're familiar with Wraith, Orpheus will have a lot of familiar elements.  I plan on running the story as presented by the 6 basic books, and would strongly encourage players to NOT read ahead  in the material or do any google/wiki research.  If you already know how the story goes, there's still plenty to enjoy, as long as you can sit on your spoilers.

From the White Wolf Wiki:

The last original gaming line to be set in the Classic World of Darkness, Orpheus tackles the world of the dead following the events of the Sixth Great Maelstrom. A corporation called the Orpheus Group has learned and perfected the art of projection, allowing people who have undergone near-death experiences to leave their bodies and enter the spirit realm. The company uses these employees, along with allied ghosts, as agents, and contracts them out to clients for investigations into hauntings, fumigating raging spirits, and other spooky tasks.

While Orpheus does tie in loosely with White Wolf’s previous effort at the afterlife, Wraith: The Oblivion, it is not treated as a true sequel or continuation, although players of Wraith will certainly find parts of Orpheus familiar, especially towards the end. Orpheus is also unique in that other supernatural characters, such as vampires and werewolves, have no real place in the game. The Core book states that if, in your game you want them to exist, you can, but the Orpheus characters would be heavily outmatched as they are essentially plain, run-of-the-mill humans. The book also notes that the Werewolves and Vampires have done a good enough job of hiding from the Mortal world, and Orpheus, at the moment, does not know about them either.

Anybody interested?

Games and music

I have a hard time getting into the spirit of a game without music playing.

 Maybe it's just my adult ADHD rearing its head, because I pretty much always need to have some constant level of background noise or else the voices in my own head start making up the difference. But the background noise for my games is usually a matter of conscious choice, instead of whatever happens to be on NPR.

When we play 40k over at my buddy Scott's place, it's almost universally some kind of metal. It works for us, because he's got a very extensive collection of various bands like Nile, Amon Amarth, and the like. Metal is the loud, aggressive side of geek fandom, and for all the tough-guy Viking warrior imagery that these guys like to project, you know that they play D&D on the tour bus.

For roleplaying games, it's a bit more of a conscious choice than an iTunes playlist on shuffle. Since I'm usually the one running the game, I get to pick, and I find that I put almost as much thought into the music as I do actually writing scenes. It's difficult for me sometimes, because I wonder how much of what I feel through the music is being accurately conveyed to the players, and how much is just me getting lost in my own internal landscape.

I have a piece from earlier in the blog, referencing the music I used in Orpheus. I put more thought into that game's soundtrack than any other I've ever done, developing different playlists for each night, and compiling a list of specific music for specific scenes. We started each night with what was essentially the theme music for the opening credits, which coincided with whichever book in the series we were currently working our way through.

 The game I'm running right now is a 4E home campaign through the Roll20 app. Music presents its own challenges here, because the onboard jukebox feature is frankly difficult to use. Its search feature is somewhat inscrutable, often finding some pretty incongruous results (I don't know how many awful homemade dubstep remixes I've listened to in the past month). It lacks any kind of playlist, pretty much enabling you to loop tracks and that's it. For now, I've made it work, and I'm thinking that I may have to just feed my players links on YouTube in order to play the tracks I want them to hear. Shared playlists on Spotify also have some promise, although I have yet to really develop that idea.

What role does music play in your games?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

40k: Death to Game Balance!!

Nothing is more exciting to me in the new 40k than the allies matrix.  

I have been collecting miniatures for a long time, and I have a fairly extensive collection.  A big part of the joy of this hobby, for me, is using the game and models to explore the abundance of lore.
 Coming up with background stories for my armies and their various characters has always been fun, and now the possibility to do some really creative and unusual interpretations of the lore has been made part of the basic rules.  Grey Knights and Necrons?  Why not, Trazyn the Infinite has an associate in the Inquisition!  Space Wolves and Dark Eldar?  Imagine the victory celebration!

More to the point, I like the implications that the Allies Matrix has on the intended culture of GW's 40k.  Since the time that I started, at the beginning of 3rd edition, GW has gradually removed more and more from the game, in the name of the elusive, sacred cow of Game Balance.  We gained and lost things like Demon Hunter/Witch Hunter units, Deathwatch Kill Teams, Variant army lists like Craftworld Eldar and Cult-specific Chaos armies, kroot mercenaries, and more over the years.  These characterful inclusions were dropped from 5th edition in favor of creating a tournament-balanced system.  Given the questionable success of that goal, I'm not convinced it was worth the cost.

Can we expect to see that sort of narrative weirdness working its way back in?  Time will tell, but I hope so.  Competitve 40k and game balance have never mattered much to me personally, and if that's the price of admission back to the land of creative army lists and narrative gameplay, sign me up.

40k 6th: Why my Necrons will kill you.

Writing about this massive rules change is something I've been ducking for a couple of days now, but despite the monolithic nature of the task, I'm going in.

I've only had time for one game yet.  Last Saturday I played a 1000 point game, my Necrons versus Scott's Death Guard.  He was riding high on a crushing victory over Gerald's Orks the night before, which he "hadn't fully processed" because frankly, Gerald played his Orks really, really well in 5th edition.

We randomly generated Dawn of War/Big Guns Never Tire, and generated the maximum number of primary objectives.  I have a reputation (however unearned) for the dice loving me, though Scott won the first turn, I stole the initiative right out the gate.  Without turning this into a full battle report, I won, 8 to 6, but casualties were insanely heavy on all sides.  By the end of the game, I had only two squads of Necron Warriors reduced to five guys each, fortuitously both parked on an objective, and he had a half-dead Havoc team, a squad of Plague Marines, and a Vindicator that had been Entropic Strike'd down to Armor 7.

It's hard for me to fully absorb exactly what the change from 5 to 6 means, because it means a lot.  There are a few sweeping changes that I really like, like the inclusion of snap shots, overwatch, thrown grenades, and mysterious objectives.  But I'm starting to grasp what the rules change means for Necrons, and it means really good things.

First of all, the change to glancing hits made Gauss weapons about a million times better.  Simply stripping away a hull point per glancing hit means that massed firepower from warriors is a real threat instead of a shot in the dark.  Coupled with the changes to Rapid Fire, Necron Warriors are back in a big, big way.

Second, Preferred Enemy got a whole lot better.  Destroyers were always one of my favorite units, but there was little incentive to field them in 5e.  Now, they're rerolling their ranged attacks, and failed wound rolls of 1.  Given the strength of their weapons, odds are that fully half their wound rolls are getting rerolled as well.

And the neat little bit that almost ducked me with Preferred Enemy is the fact that only one model in the squad needs to have it, and they ALL benefit.  I ran a Destroyer Lord in a squad of Triarch Praetorians...  fast-moving murder machines. 

Speaking of Destroyer Lords, Warscythes.  Already good, but thanks to the Power Weapon nerf, by comparison so much better.  Armorbane and AP1 pretty much guarantees a dead vehicle, and if Scott's Chaos Lord hadn't issued a challenge when I DisorderedCharged his Vindicator and Plague Marine squad, that Vindicator would not have survived the game.

I want to play around a bit more with some of this stuff, but for now I'm really happy with what I've found.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"Whispered words, pickled and preserved!"

One more bit of flavor text from my old Changeling game, and then I'll revert to something more topical, I promise.

The path you take is a narrow, cavernous affair, crowded with trees and brush that seem to grip at your clothing and hair. When the wind blows, you’d swear you can hear muttering and whispering in the blackness. Off in the distance, a twig snaps loudly. As you shuffle uncertainly down the path, the eerie sounds seem to increase in volume and frequency. Strange music, equally earthy and ethereal, drifts between the dark treetrunks, and soon you can see silver-blue light. As you get closer, the light makes your path clearer, until you find yourself stepping into the surreal madness of the Nightmarket.

This is no gathering of changelings, and the colloquial term “goblin market” is no exaggeration. Most of the creatures here were never human, and the wares they hawk and vend defy mortal understanding. The forest canopy crowds down on you, and is lit by the same diffuse blue glow that illumines the Nightmarket. Vines and wispy scraggles of moss hang down among the booths, carts, and heads of the creatures here. The whole place is less a forest clearing and more a cavernous grotto of branch, root, and trunk.

The variety of goods is staggering. Jars and bottles of eyes that twitch to watch passersby. Strange gourds and fruits from the Hedge. Ancient books of faerie lore. The foreskins of heretical men. Feathers and skins from exotic beasts. Hedgespun garments. Contracts. Dried herbs. Fresh herbs. Broken toys. Stolen songs. Lost dogs. Forgotten dreams. Potions, distilled from the saliva of apes and the menstrual blood of horses. The hands of hanged men. Jars of fat, rendered from the bellies of the unrepentant. Bird bones and boneless birds. Preserved fish, dead in their jars. Graveyard earth.

“Toes… toes for sale… two times two, three times three, toes for sale….”
“Gemstones, fine jewelry! Opals, tourmaline, diamonds, petrified heart! Strung with pearls, set in rings!”
“Contracts… oaths of power and mystery…”
“Lies… lies for sale… two times two, four times four…”
“Suicide letters, freely exchanged for reagents of twisted earth…”
“Hopes and Fears, we buy and sell.”

Goblin-creatures of varied and outrageous appearance populate the market. Here a tiny crone pushes a cart of doll’s eyes. There a vine-entwined nymph, bare-breasted and with leaves in her hair, laughs at the flirtation of a grotesque dwarf. He pulls open the front of his pants, giving her a glimpse inside, and the two laugh uproariously. At the base of a dying oak, a team of huge-eyed gnomes, made of earth and dressed in leaves, unloads a cart of tools. Across from them, an ancient man of polished wood squats naked on a mossy carpet. Everywhere you look it is busy, as goods change hands at a madman’s pace.

“Whispered words, pickled and preserved!”
“Charms, tokens, and treasures, all stolen…”
“Burned candles, broken promises!”
“Shrouds, all for a pittance… corpse-clothes, burial shrouds…”
“Greed, Bitterness, Loss, and Sorrow, Pain and Suffering by the ounce.”
“Oracles! Divination! I see all!”

Changeling-inspired fictionette

Just a little piece I felt like writing when I first started reading Changeling: The Lost.  I feel like this gives a sense of some of what this game can be.

I only have room enough in here to open one eye. There's not much to see, because there's really no light anyway. It's dusty and cramped, full of hard splintery wood and crumbly plaster. You wouldn't like it, but it's about the only place I can sleep anymore. I found a mouse skeleton over there yesterday.

My name is Hester and I sleep inside walls. I like the older walls in the B-Wing best, the stuff that was put up forty years ago. They still have the old cellulose insulation in some places, and they're sturdier than the synthetic ones in the Goldsmith Wing. I started sleeping inside the walls here about a month ago; before that I curled up wherever I didn't think any of the staff would find me. Sometimes in supply closets, sometimes in the archive, and sometimes right there in the stacks. The staff never saw me.

Still, I crawled inside the wall after the fifth morning that I woke up crying again. I couldn't stop. I don't know why I was crying, I can't remember any dreams. But I felt so awful and sad, so I just went over to a crack by the baseboard and just sort of wiggled my way in.

It's not so bad. I feel safe in here, and I haven't woken up crying in a while. I've started bringing in some of the old books too. I have a pile of some of my favorites (
The Well-Tempered Clavichord, books two, three, five, and seven of The Waverly Novels, and a 1914 Sears-Roebuck catalog) keeping my mouse company now. I can't really read my books in here because it's dark, but it's easier to keep them safe.

I think Bastion would be disappointed if he saw me like this, but he wouldn't really get it either. Ever since he returned from Foolspoint, it's like he's a different person. Not that I think he was Taken and replaced (again), but... I don't know, when he listens to me, he doesn't really hear me anymore. I haven't seen that much of him in the past couple of weeks. Terrible Claire told me that Bastion has been very busy with his duties to the Scarecrow Ministry. I guess they're in negotiation with some goblin out in the Hedge who claims he's got a bottle of Bastion's memories for sale.

A better friend would be happy, I guess, but if those really are Bastion's memories and he really manages to get them back, all it's going to do is put more distance between me and him. I miss him.

I think I'm going to go out tonight. Terrible Claire said that there's going to be some kind of gathering down at the Bend tonight, for the equinox. I don't really like the Bend most of the time, but Bastion will probably be there and I should talk to him before he forgets me entirely. There's going to be a really lovely moon out tonight, and Terrible Claire thinks that Sister might show up to tell us a story. If she does, I'm going to write it down, because it'd be a shame to lose Sister's stories. I wonder if she'd meet me to start recording them?

Nobody's seen Tim for a while. Mr. Abraham says he heard Tim found his family. I hope that's true.

I should go get cleaned up if I'm going out tonight.

Changeling: The Lost, one you may have missed

It's not new, having launched in 2007, and like many of the lesser-known World of Darkness titles, flew under a lot of peoples' radar.  I'm bringing it up again because I feel like it's a game that deserves a lot more attention than it got.  This is a truly deep, compelling game, with some stirring themes and imagery.

I feel like White Wolf got it right. This game has a purer feel to it than its precedent title. The faerie tale elements are all there. The supernatural element is what it should be: raw, elemental, potent, and terrible. Dreaming changelings had to carefully husband the faerie parts of their lives; Lost changelings run the risk of being overwhelmed by it.  This is a game about people who are victims of something greater and more terrible than themselves, but ultimately turn those victimizing forces into essential aspects of a new identity.  It has a timeless quality found in the writing of Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman and the Brothers Grimm.

Published by White Wolf as another installment in their reincarnated World of Darkness line, The Lost is drastically different from its ancestor, The Dreaming. In the Dreaming, changelings were mortal people who housed faerie souls and lived in two worlds: the physical world we all know, and an immaterial overlay of living dreams. The supernatural half of this dual reality existed only for its participants, and was vulnerable to the forces of disbelief and denial. Children's imaginary friends or monsters under the bed were real to the changelings, as were more classic faerie beings. This world of enchantment was fragile and prone to vanishing for individuals who wander too far into day-to-day drudgery, but those that strayed too far into it were often driven mad.

However, The Lost takes a more archetypal approach, drawing more on traditional faerie tales. Changelings are mortals who, at some point, were abducted by the True Fae, and carted off to Faerie. There, they slaved and served at the whims of their ethereal, godlike masters in a realm more beautiful and terrible than anything they'd imagined could exist. Memories of former lives dwindled and faded, and the magic of Faerie inundated these people until they were no longer truly human. Eventually, they escaped from Faerie, through the barrier between the worlds called the Hedge, back into their own world.

Except it wasn't their world anymore. Many return to find that time has passed dramatically. Oftentimes, the changelings return to friends and family to find that they were never missed; they had been replaced by a fae-made imposter called a Fetch. Frequently Changelings have flawed memory of life before their abduction, and recall their time in Faerie only through dreams or vague (but overwhelming) sensations.

Unable to return home, or not even knowing where home is, the changelings find each other. Mortal eyes see changelings as normal people, but they can see each other's fae aspect. They band together for camaraderie, friendship, mutual understanding, and protection. The enchanted world they share is not the fragile fantasy of The Dreaming, it is an awful, brutal reality that seeks to hunt them down and drag them back, through the Hedge, to their immortal Keepers.

This new iteration of Changeling has one of the most open-ended character generation systems I've ever seen. In the past, there were a handful of kiths that a player could choose (Nocker, Boggan, Eshu, Sidhe, Satyr, Troll, Pooka, Sluagh... did I forget any?). Now, there are six Seemings: Darklings (the insidious things from the deep dark places in Faerie), Ogres, the Wizened (sage in appearance and ability), Beasts (changelings with one or more animal aspects), Elementals (those that were shaped by their keepers into material objects or overexposed to raw natural forces), and the Fairest (humans abducted to be singers, dancers, courtesans, and lovers to the True Fae).

Each Seeming has six or seven Kiths associated with it, which takes the overall role and appearance determined by Seeming and refines it by detailing specific powers, and expanding on particular aspects of the Seeming's role. For example, Darklings might be Antiquarians (hoarders of books and forgotten knowledge), Gravewights (those who deal with the dead), Leechfingers (who steal life from mortals), Mirrorskins (changers of shape and appearance), and Tunnelgrubs (goblinesque creepers capable of squirming through extremely narrow spaces).

Each changeling also has a Mantle. Rather than being simply Seelie or Unseelie, each changeling is (usually) allied with the forces of a particular season. The Winter Court embodies Sorrow, the Spring Desire, the Summer Wrath, and the Autumn Fear.

Finally, changelings frequently can have Entitlements. These represent membership with particular houses, factions, or secret societies that grant supernatural boons, and instill an agenda. The Duchy of the Icebound Heart, for instance, grants its members supernatural influence over those whose hearts they have personally broken.

The theme of The Lost is beautiful madness, and like many of White Wolf's other titles, it asks a great deal of its troupe.  The potential for gripping, tragic storytelling is there, if the players and storyteller are ready and able.  The strong fibers of loss, isolation, confusion, and insanity are interwoven with myth, beauty, poetry, and raw elemental power to create something that can inspire players.  It certainly inspired me.

The joys of custom worldcrafting

Creating a game world from scratch is one of the most fraught undertakings that any GM can consider, and this post is mostly a chance for me to self-indulgently reminisce about one that I started over a decade ago.

When 3rd Edition D&D launched, I wanted to create something new, and so the Feldenglas chronicle was born.  It traveled with me through my remaining college semesters, evolved during my years working at the Games Workshop headquarters in Maryland, and reached culmination in its own annihilation and apotheosis in the summer of 2005.  Here's a piece I wrote back in 2008, when 4th Edition prompted me to look at this world with fresh eyes:

Our home is a thriving place. The barony of Feldenglas is situated on a bright and shining bay. We have a wise baron, rich countryside, and growing trade influence with the other baronies. Castle Feldenglas sits perched at the heart of our town, atop a pinnacle of rock scorched in ages past by some great conflagration. The Church of Ea is ever-vigilant for the safety of men’s souls, advising spiritual purity and promising heavenly reward.

How would the Cardinal react, I wonder, if he knew that this world had already died once? How would he reconcile his doctrine of the ascendance of the mortal soul with the truth of the world’s reincarnation?

Would his faith be shaken, I wonder, if he knew that Merciful Ea was at the heart of the world’s destruction? Few have heard the truth, but I know that Ea, Lord in Heaven, betrayed his celestial brethren and claimed the world for his own. When he was stricken low, the world was unmade. The words were spoken, and where once there was one, there is again many. Now, eons after the fall of Lord Ea, these mighty lands of Cae Lyndyr are still being reborn.

Beyond the villages and fields, the primordial world is still grinding itself together and apart. The race of men carries on unconcerned, and while alliances rise and nations fall, the naïve forests and tall young mountains seethe with the reincarnated memories of their timeless heritage. Beyond the sight of men, the wild is both young and vibrant, and unknowably ancient.

Though merciful Ea may protect us from the predations of infernal sorcerers, it is simple country wisdom that keeps us safe from the fae folk. Bowls of milk beside the back door, or fresh loaves of bread at roadside shrines, or even a copper coin tossed into a sacred well. Only the most arrogant or foolish would call these superstitions. I have seen fields become fallow, cows dry up, and children stricken with the ague in villages where the proper offerings are not made. I have known men to return from their travels with tales of beautiful elf-maidens, and women to birth children with distant sight and strange gifts. With my own eyes, I have beheld a wagon driven by one of the Neisse, laden with crafted goods so clever that no mortal hand could ever duplicate them.

In many hidden places, the memories of the ancient world linger on. Sailors bring tales of ruined empires, outlandish people, and places where sorcerers declare their hellish allegiances without fear of reprisal. Some claim to have seen giants in the hills, or conversed with the dead on moonless nights. The narrow reality of the city streets and temple walls cannot explain the mysteries and wonders discovered by those with the courage to look beyond the palisades. The songs of the Gods have given these lands new life, but it is the toil of mortals that will shape it for ages to come.

The Feldenglas Chronicle is a game that has gone through numerous incarnations. It was originally conceived in the Fall of 2000, when Wizards of the Coast launched D&D 3rd edition. Initially a gritty, medieval, low-magic setting, the world was plunged into an apocalyptic war between the Heavenly Hosts of Ea and the Infernal Minions of the Nine Lords of Hell. The first chapter in the story ended with one of the player characters becoming the primary antagonist, opportunistically grasping at the remains of the barony of Feldenglas and setting it up as an infernal bastion. The remaining members of the party managed to secure safe harbor for the refugees of the so-called Saint’s War, ending the story on a wonderfully ambiguous note.

The second chapter began in the winter of 2003, featuring a majority of new players and characters. As the story unfolded, the characters learned that Ea was a traitor to the other Gods, and had stolen the world from them and remade it in his own image. As Ea prepared for the final battle that would prove to himself his own superiority, the heroes found a way to force him to become bound to his mortal form. They were then able to kill him. In the singularity of Ea’s destruction, the world was again unmade. The other Gods were awakened, and Ea’s arrogance and betrayal were forgiven. The story ended with the Gods preparing to sing their songs again.

Now, Cae Lyndyr is reborn, and with it the Barony of Feldenglas. It will continue to have a more historical flavor than most D&D settings, roughly corresponding to 12th-century Europe, but it will be heavily tinged with the Mythopoetic. There are superlative places that are clearly more than their mundane counterparts, like faerie-paradise forests, or mountains twelve miles high, topped with eternal winter. Mythic, supernal elements are present, but they will often be at odds with human civilization, by accident or design. The player characters are almost always be human, but Wizards are no longer unheard of, Clerics may serve deities other than Ea, and fathers may pass heirloom Neisse-forged swords to their sons. The emphasis is on exploration and wonder, conflict between the rational and the supernal, and the burdens and responsibility of those who are willing to truly begin to see the world outside their own front door.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Implications of Virtual Gamespace

Something is lost when gamers simply consume their game, rather than collaborate in its creation.

Recently, I was introduced to a virtual tabletop website called Roll20.  It offers a suite of mapping tools to create a real-time virtual gamespace with features like live webcam, a well-stocked library of images, objects, maps, and music, and the ability to create and save dice macros.  At the time of writing, it's still in beta, but my group and I have been pretty damn impressed with the service as a whole.

Gaming in virtual space isn't anything new; it's been around since the first MUD launched in the late 70s and is presently a cultural juggernaut.  For all those years, tabletop games, especially D&D, have a direct influence on the ways in which online games have been created and consumed.  MMOs like World of Warcraft have built the fundamental mechanic of their combat encounters (coordination between Tank, Healer, Damage, and Crowd Control to defeat the enemies) around the four iconic classes of the original D&D game (Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Magic-User).  Subsequently, when Wizards of the Coast rewrote the books for 4th edition, they codified what Blizzard and others had been doing in online games, identifying the four roles of Defender, Leader, Striker, and Controller.  Cynical reviewers scoffed and threw up their hands, saying that Wizards wanted to make D&D into World of Warcraft.

Though some of the gameplay features of D&D and WoW bear some similarity, the two are worlds apart.  I've played a lot of both, and the real distinction is the presence or absence of user-created content.  From the very beginning, D&D was always about creativity: you create the characters, you create the world, you and your friends tell whatever story that you want to tell.  MMOs like WoW are limited by the fact that they cannot be user-created, only consumed.  I have seen some decent role-playing take place in WoW, but the constraints of the virtual world were always something that we had to ignore, overcome, or work around.  Ultimately, if your interest is in creating content and exploring character roleplay, sooner or later that model is going to leave you cold.

I'm not trying to force a dialogue about tabletop-vs-MMO; that's a tired and pointless conversation that I'll leave to the fourteen-year-old sages that inhabit the rest of the internet.  My point here is that the gaming industry as a whole has gotten amazingly good at creating incredibly stirring, exciting, overwhelming products that can be very entertaining, but leave a certain fundamental aspect of the gamer's spirit unfulfilled.  We're constantly busier and busier, and the convenience of online gaming can be made to fit our schedules more easily than traveling to a friends' house for an evening.

Playing D&D via Roll20 was a revelation.  Before we ever had our first session, I had a blast just creating the dens of happy little goblins that my friends would soon be murdering.  As a GM, creating was always fun for me; Roll20 just made it a lot easier to address my relative lack of artistic and technical ability.

My players, to varying degrees, participated in that creation in the way that players always do: creating a character, and shoring up the statistical skeleton with their fictional background.  To varying degrees, of course: not all of them are as interested in story, but that's fine.  Once again, what we're enjoying is collaborative creativity, and that seemed to come through Roll20 just fine.

Once we got to actually playing, the user interface tripped us all up a bit at first, but we got comfortable with our macros, and with the slight lag in the webcam windows, and before long we really seemed to forget that we weren't all around the table with each other. 

The virtual tabletop was a success because it enabled us play our game together.  It exceeded my expectations, because it enabled us to create and to socialize, with minimal impact on these sort of higher-order functions of the gaming group. 

We've been told this was coming for years now; it makes me smile that the ones who delivered on the promise were a bunch of guys who funded the project on Kickstarter so that they could offer it free to whomever wanted it.  Talk about user-generated content.