Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thoughts on How Not to Run D&D 5E at a Convention

I've been wanting to get a bit more exposure to D&D 5E - I have the Player's Handbook and DM's Guide, but I haven't been able to read all the way through them yet. The bits I have read, and also comments online, have intrigued me. One of my friends keeps threatening to run a campaign using 5E, but so far we've only played one session about 8 months or so ago.

Over Labor Day Weekend, my friend Cal and I were able to get some time to hit up Strategicon here in Los Angeles and the first thing we did after we arrived shortly after 8am was to sign up for a D&D 5E game. The last time we tried this, all of the games were full by the time we got there and we ended up playing Dungeon World instead (which as it turns out, was a whole lot of fun).

This time, there were a couple of 5E games still open, so we signed up for the next one that was coming up and headed over to the room where the game was to take place. The short description mentioned it was a high level game which was one of the main reasons we signed up for it - we really wanted to see how the game played at higher levels.

Cal and I were the first two people in the room, but it shortly started to fill up with various players. I'm using the phrase "fill up" here literally because more and more players kept coming into the room. By the time we started, there were about 12 players total (all men except for one woman who was married to one of the players). The DM was a convivial sort and actually had created t-shirts for everyone which he began tossing over to us as we all called out our shirt sizes. This guy knew his audience pretty well, as he'd printed extra shirts at various sizes that, let's just say, aren't your regular shirt sizes you'd find at a store. It was obvious he had a lot of enthusiasm for this game, which we learned quickly was based in his homebrew campaign world that he's clearly been using for quite a while. (I'm not going to mention the name here because I had some issues with this particular game - not with the setting but with the actual game play).

It's possible that my issues are more based on expectations, but given that this is a convention and people paid to get in and signed-up for a game that was to last for four hours, I would expect that people should get to actually play the game for four hours. This wasn't a tournament style game that was being judged on points, so I really don't think it makes sense to have players set aside their time at the convention to sign up for a game that basically takes them away from any other game they could be playing, only to come across a "Save or Die" type of situation, have their character auto-killed with no chance, and then told that there are no "replacement" characters for him to play.

"Thanks for signing up for my game. Sorry you got killed in the first 45 minutes, and every other game you could play already started. Have fun sitting around for the next 3 hours and 15 minutes."

I have nothing against old-school game play and I'm not opposed to Save-or-Die situations. But in this case, I think there should be some kind of concession for a convention player. Just throw the guy a bone and let him play someone's henchman or something.

I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, as that particular scenario above happened a bit later during the game.

Firstly, after we had all sat down, the DM scattered a bunch of index cards on the table that listed all of the available characters. The descriptions were pretty evocative - I chose one that read something like "Assassin - Wraith." My friend Cal chose "Heavy Armor Thug." For myself, I was thinking I had picked an Assassin character whose name was Wraith. Cal figured he'd picked a Thug type character who liked to wear heavy armor.

As it turns out, my character was a Wraith Burglar Assassin who was totally incorporeal, could turn the dead into Spectres, and had no actual physical possessions (again, because he was incorporeal and couldn't carry anything) but he kept his most prized possession in a secret cache buried somewhere. But then oddly, in his character sheet, right after he said he carried no possession, there was a note that he had a deck of cards.

Cal's character turned out to be a Helmed Horror Thief/Thug.

We were actually pretty excited to play some non-standard characters and see how the rules system matched them up power-wise against other more "mundane" characters in the group (there was, oddly, a human, Paladin, even though it was clear that my character was an evil undead wraith, an elf wizard, some other assorted humans/demi-humans, but also a mummy priest-king, a dragon in human form, and a purple worm ranger). It was quite an eclectic group.

The DM's next step was to pull me outside the room, tell me that I'd picked the "most important character" and that my guy was essentially the "leader." Then he want on to tell me that the planet everybody thought they were on was not the "real" version of the planet. It was like some sort of shadow-version, but only my character and one other character knew this. Everyone else thought they were on the "real" planet. Then he told me to make sure not to tell everybody else about this. He then told me that I'd been asked to recover some item or body or something - I can't actually remember. But it was a standard "go recover something" type of quest and I was given vague information about where to start looking and then told that I needed to get the other players to agree to go with me.

Now, normally, I think that would be fine, but again, given the time constraints of a convention type scenario, I think it would have made a lot more sense to just fall-back on the old standard scenario of him telling us "you've been hired by King What's-His-Name to recover the Whatever-It-Is and you've accepted the offer and are on the way..." That way, we could have gotten right into playing.

Instead, I had to try to herd 12 people, who were split across two different tables because there wasn't a table big enough for all of us, and try to get them to agree to go on this quest, when I wasn't actually sure why my character wanted to do it in the first place.

Then the DM stopped, and had us all switch tables where we were sitting - he shifted some of us around. At first, Cal and I thought that he'd divided the players into "Good" and "Evil" tables, but it turns out that he actually just divided us based on which chariot we chose to support at some big chariot race that was happening. Then he announced that we could bet on the outcome of the race and players started to say that they were going to place bets. Then the DM rolled some dice, told one table that their chariot lost, and then announced, "That's why you shouldn't bet on chariot races." He then let people go back to sit wherever they wanted.


We were, too. This had nothing to do with our quest, and given that we were using pre-generated characters that we were never going to use again past this convention, there was little reason for us to be attached to money for our characters. This is when I began to have a bad feeling about this particular game. At this point, we'd been "playing" for about 45 minutes or so, and hadn't done anything to experience the actual rules of 5E.

There's a lot of stuff that happened that got us to our next point in the adventure, but it mainly involved me and two other people asking a series of questions to the DM to figure out "where to start" so we could actually find the entrance to the place where the thing-we-were-supposed-to-recover was hidden. Again, given that this was a convention game and not a long-term campaign, I'm not sure that this was a good use of time.

We eventually found the entrance and through a combination of my character incorporeally flying into various doors to find the correct one, and the purple worm character tunneling through, we eventually got started. After the first few room descriptions, Cal and I immediately turned to each other because we realized that we were playing through the Tomb of Horrors.

Again, I have nothing against old school adventures at all, and I would have been very happy to "play" through the original Tomb of Horrors. I was a little bit surprised that the DM didn't foressee that his audience of players, most of whom were in the age range of 40+, had probably played through this adventure before. But, we soldiered on until it became obvious that the DM's planned strategy for our group to handle the notoriously trap-laden tomb was for my character to fly while incorporeal through the dungeon, find all the traps, tell the others where the traps were so they could be avoided, and then find the "thing we were supposed to find" and the get the Hell out. It seemed like he really didn't want or expect us to go through the dungeon as it was intended, so the next 90+ minutes of the game consisted of me saying, "Okay, I'll fly over here..." and then him telling me what I saw, and the rest of the players just sitting there watching and listening (or actually playing on their phones because they were bored... who wouldn't be?). I started to get very annoyed because I kept putting myself in the shoes of the other players who were just sitting there and I kept gently urging the DM "If we're just going to have me fly everywhere and find all the traps, can you just hand-wave this and skip to the part where everyone can be involved so they're all not just sitting here?" He would nod and say, "Yes" but then he just kept continuing to do what he was doing. He didn't catch on and despite my best efforts, he made me go through every single room by myself even though nothing ever happened to my character. Eventually some of the other players tried to do something, which resulted in the purple worm player eating through a section of the floor and ending up being transported to "someplace we didn't know" and having him removed from the game.

This was the "Save-or-Die" situation I referred to above. I then spent the better part of the next 20 minutes or so, again very politely, trying to suggest to the DM that perhaps it would make sense to let this player have a chance at playing another character since he'd sat there patiently for the past hour or so while my character did everything, and that it probably wouldn't be a good experience for him to just end up sitting there with nothing to do for the rest of the game. The DM's automatic answer was essentially "that's what the rules say - your character is gone" but eventually he relented and let my wraith fly into a room and find the body of the purple worm character so that I could go back and find the party cleric to have him raised. This process eventually worked but the DM had the wormed raised with no intelligence so he was basically just like a big dog at that point.

Eventually the "Tomb" part of the game ended, we found the thing we were looking for (I recall now it was an actual person that had somehow been turned into a painting by some bad guys or something, but we fixed him). Then the DM pulled me outside again and told me that this guy asked me for "the-prize-you-treasure-over-all-others" (I don't remember what it was) - the thing I had buried in my secret treasure cache. I asked the DM for some context - "Do I already know this guy? Do I have reason to trust him?" etc. It turns out that this guy had apparently given my character the item at some point in the past, so I gave it back to him. The DM was shocked and said, "I can't believe you gave him that!" and I was a little surprised by his reaction. I simply told him, "This is a one-shot convention game and I have no information I could use to make an informed decision, so in the spirit of moving the game along this seemed like the best course of action." 

I should point out that during this whole time, there was no dice rolling or actions taken by any of the characters other than my wraith, who had to role sometimes to avoid demons that were attracted to his incorporeal status. This all took about three hours of our allotted four hours for the game.

Later, there was a big party to celebrate us returning home to the "shadow-world-that-is-not-real" and there was a big discussion over where the money was going to come from to throw the party, which again I'm not sure was relevant, but it took awhile to figure out the logistics of the source of funding for the party.

During the party, where all of our characters were present, a group of wizards teleported over the party and used Time Stop in order to attack the guy we had just saved from the Tomb of Horrors. It turns out that all of our characters were susceptible to Time Stop except for Cal's Helmed Horror (it specifically said on his sheet that he was immune to Time Stop). So, for the next 45 or so minutes, the rest of us sat around with nothing to do while enemy wizards, one after the other, cast Time Stop, tried to attack the NPC guy we rescued, and in turn were attacked by Cal's Helmed Horror. This lasted until Cal's character had killed all of the enemy wizards, and then the session was over.

That was it - I never really did get to see how 5E worked in action, and I felt very awkward that my character had the majority of "screen time" (not by my choice, but by the way the DM had set up the adventure) and that no one else other than Cal and me really got to do anything at all.

I haven't played a ton of role-playing games at conventions - I tend to mostly play board games; so, I'm not sure if these types of experiences are common. The last time before this that I played an RPG at a convention was using Dungeon World, as I mentioned, and it was a much smaller group and everyone was contributing and talking and had things to do. I'd love to hear all of your thoughts, especially if you think I was being disrespectful to the DM by suggesting that he try to alter things to give other players a chance to do things.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Walkin' Shoes" by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Chet Baker

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Tale of My "Lost Summer"

Like that, summer is gone and autumn is fully upon us. I "lost" a large portion of my summer this year after my daughter was involved in a very bad accident one evening in late July. I don't want to get into too many details of the accident itself, other than to say that it was severe enough that I had to take the first flight home I could get (as luck would have it I was on the other side of the country for business) and spent the next week in the hospital with my wife and daughter, and then spent the rest of the summer at a battery of doctor, surgeon, and therapist appointments. Hearing that my six year-old daughter has PTSD is not something I ever thought I'd be listening to.

I don't write this as a bid for sympathy or anything like that - we received a tremendous outpouring of love and support from our friends, family, and even complete strangers in the first few weeks after the accident and it was completely overwhelming (in a good way). I'm not really even writing this as a way to say "this is why I haven't been blogging" over the past few months. I've gone through many spells where work and family needs took precedence over the blog.

My daughter is continuing to recuperate and every day seems to get a little bit better, and we're so thankful for that. In those first few hours and days after the accident, all I could do was pray that my daughter would survive and recover and get back to being her healthy, normal self. I was walking around like a zombie in a half-daze, and then I just started to get grumpy about everything due to lack of sleep and of course stress and worry.

As the days wore on, I found that I fell back onto my old comfort zone to get by. When at first the thought of reading a comic or talking about gaming or movies seemed inappropriate and thoughtless, I found that it brought me a bit of comfort and that in turn helped my psychological state so that I could be stronger for my daughter, even when she was unconscious. I needed to "re-charge" my batteries a bit to just be myself.

What I learned is that my family's support network is so much larger and thoughtful than I ever could have imagined. There are so many tales I could share, but a few are directly related to the overall theme of my blog.

On the second day after the accident, after I'd finally been able to get a flight home, some friends of ours stopped by our local comic book shop that my daughter I visit each Wednesday night after work. The daughter of these people is my daughter's best friend, and their mom is, let's just say, the "anti-Martin." Other than our mutual affection for beer, we have very little else in common. She's set foot in a comic book store exactly one other time in her life, and that was because I dragged her there during a My Little Pony signing, so she could get a signed comic for her daughter. This woman and her daughter went into the shop and mentioned that my daughter had been injured and was in the hospital. The store manager connected-the-dots and realized what had happened (this particular accident had actually been reported nationwide on the news, although of course they kept my daughter's name out of it). He leapt into action, grabbing a bunch of comics for my daughter, and then he grabbed about four graphic novels for me to read in the hospital and just gave them to our friend to give to us. My daughter is kind of a "store mascot" in a way, and this guy knew that I would be sitting in the hospital, stressing out, and that I might need an escape for just a few minutes. And he knew I'd want something new to show to my daughter once she was conscious again. Those comics truly helped my mood and demeanor while I was at the hospital - not just the actual reading of them, but also just the thought and caring that went into him gifting them to us. I still get a bit choked up just thinking about it.

As a side note, about a month after the accident, that same comic shop held an event, named after my daughter, where they donated a portion of all of their sales that day to us to help us pay our medical bills. And they invited a bunch of artists who have appeared at the store in the past to do sketches and signings, and that day all of the money they collected for their sketches also went to my family. I just can't say enough about what a wonderful community we found at this shop and the great lengths they went to in order to "take care of one of their own." When I saw the shop owner post about the event on Facebook, you can probably imagine that I was just completely overwhelmed with emotion.

In other comics-related stories, "Wonder Woman" became a theme for my daughter's recovery. A graphic designer friend took one of my daughter's old Halloween photos where she was dressed as Wonder Woman and put that into a comic-book type "frame" and then mounted it on foam core and we put that in my daughter's hospital room. Other people sent over Wonder Woman themed gifts including bobble heads, a customized Wonder Woman build-a-bear, a Wonder Woman rabbit, and an Ugly Doll dressed as Wonder Woman, as well as play accessories like bracelets, necklaces, tiaras, and other items. All of these items really helped my daughter's spirits and her recovery - we kept explaining how she was just as strong and brave as Wonder Woman and that theme has carried on during her recuperation. Having a strong female role-model like that has been a tremendous help for my daughter.

Oddly, while I was in the hospital and even returning home afterwards, I found that I was going through a bit of a creative streak. After the initial shock of the accident wore off and my mood slowly started to improve, for some reason a bunch of ideas started bubbling to the surface of my mind. I've wondered if this was just my subconscious way of dealing with all of the stress and keeping it from eating away at me. Whatever the reason, I had a ton of new ideas for my on-going World of Samoth campaign that I began to jot down, and also randomly resurrected an RPG idea that I'd been working on-and-off again for the better part of the past five years or so, but one that I hadn't touched in at least a year. I started writing tons of notes and organizing my thoughts.

And of course the WiFi connection in the hospital enabled me to re-watch a lot of my favorite genre shows that are streaming on NetFlix and Amazon Prime. All of these so-called "geek" outlets were so comforting to me in this time of immense stress for my family and me. Being able to "tune out" for a few minutes with a comic, TV show, or game book and collect my thoughts really helped me to strengthen myself and be able to deal with my daughter's trauma.

It's a bit odd to think about my hobbies that way - always before, I looked at them as pleasant, diverting pass-times but nothing more. They're a fun way to spend time with friends or to just provide an escape from reality for a few minutes or hours. But I'd never thought of them as a kind of support network for one's mental health. I'm so glad that I had all of my hobbies and interests to fall back on.

I'm curious to hear if any of you have had similar experiences as a way to deal with stress like this.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Listening: "Autumn Leaves (Instrumental Version)" by Stan Getz
Drinking: Fall Hornin' Pumpkin Ale by Anderson Valley Brewing Company

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Do You Read Comics? Why or Why Not? And a Comics History Course!

Today is New Comics Wednesday, so after I picked my daughter up from Summer Camp, we'll be heading over to my local shop once again to pick up my pull-list, chat with the folks we see there every week, and talk about current comic stories, TV shows, and movies. My daughter will also get to go through the kids comics and find all of the "new" comics that came out today based on signs all over the store.

I've written before about my on-again, off-again relationship with comics. But today, I really want to hear your stories. I'm curious about those of you out there who do read comics, but I'm also really interested in those of you who don't read comics. Here are a few questions to get your started. I'll post my own answers to these questions later.

  1. Have you ever read a comic book?
    1. If not, why not?
  2. Roughly how old were you when you read your first comic (if you've ever read one)?
  3. Do you currently read comics? 
    1. If not, why not? 
  4. If you're into (or were into) comics, list three of your favorite stories/arcs/etc. to share with my followers, and why you like them.
  5. What other things do you read (e.g., fiction, non-fiction, specific types of genres, etc.)?
  6. Do you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 
    1. If so, does it make you interested in wanting to read more stories about the characters?
  7. Do you like the DC Cinematic Universe? 
    1. Similarly to the above - would you be interested in reading more? 
  8. For you role-players out there, have you ever used a story, character, or other concept from a comic book in one of your games? 

On a related note, I recently participated in an online course developed by Stan Lee and Michael Uslan (producer of every Batman movie including the Burton, Schumacher, and Nolan versions, as well as the first person to ever teach a course of comics back in the 1970s) in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution. The course was part of "EdX" which is an online learning platform developed by MIT and Harvard that features free courses.

Yes, this course was free! It was called "The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact on Pop Culture." It was "taught" through a series of videos, text, and images that covered all of the main periods of comics culture, from the Golden Age, the Silver Age, and up through the Modern Age. In each section, Michael Uslan (who is the main instructor) talks about what was happening in the world at that time (e.g., World War Two, the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam, etc.) and helps to put the events happening in the comics into context of how they reflected what was happening in society. He also interviews Stan Lee in each section in a series of videos where Stan provides his memories and recollections, which is very cool because he's one of the only people still around who was there all the way back near the beginning of the Golden Age and who is still active and involved in the community today.

As this is a free course, it's graded on a pass-fail basis only. You pass the course be completing some "homework" each week. The homework was based around designing a new superhero, ideally using your own culture's mythology as inspiration. I chose to look to my Scottish and Irish heritage and then designed a female superhero, her alter ego (civilian identity), her origin, and of course her main nemesis - a supervillain. The course lays all of this out so you do it little by little, and at each stage, you provide your reason for the choices that you made. There are also sections for providing illustrations of your character, but they understand that not every is an artist, so there are forums and social media sites for the course where you can partner with an artist to collaborate on your hero. They also give links to online sites such as HeroMachine where you can design your hero yourself with an online template (which is what I did).

I'll talk more about this in coming weeks, but even without the hero-designing aspect of the course, I found it very interesting and informative to learn about the various ages of the comics and how the creators of those time periods were trying to reflect what they saw happening in the world around them. If you're at all interested in comics, or history, or better yet, comics history, I encourage you to check out the course. You can learn more here. They are going to offer the course again based on the feedback they received from the inaugural course that wrapped up at the end of June.

Don't forget to drop your comments below to answer my questions about your experience with comics!

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "How's Your Life - Alix Alvarez Mix" by Tortured Soul (link is for Spotify)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Girls, Princess Leia, and Wonder Woman

I had many goals for myself when I started out this blog. I wanted to share my gaming experiences dating back to the early 1980's all the way up through today. I wanted to chat about comics and also science-fiction and fantasy books, TV shows, and movies. I wanted to provide some unique gaming inspirations and mechanics.

But ultimately my main goal was to document my experiences as a "geek dad" who is raising a young girl and trying to share with her the things I'm so passionate about while also trying to encourage her to have her own sense of self and develop a passion for things that she likes.

A new Wonder Woman Dress for Joy
My daughter, Joy, turned six last week. It was with no small sense of pride that I smiled at her approvingly when she chose to have sushi for her birthday dinner - partly because I'm tired and didn't want to cook again, but also because we've really been trying to expose her to different styles of food. We do this mainly out of laziness, because neither my wife nor I have the patience nor the desire to have to cook two different meals at dinner time. We've adopted a "you eat what we make" type of policy, but fortunately it's worked out quite well for us. Joy eats pretty much anything, although like most kids she has random aversions to certain foods for pretty much no good reason.

For her party this year, Joy originally announced that she wanted a small tea party, with only three or four friends, and her mom and I were very much on board with this, because ultimately it meant less work for us! However, over time, the party theme changed - first to Superheroes, and then to Star Wars, and then briefly to "Star Wars Superheroes" at which point her mom and I put our collective feet down and said, "Star Wars it is!"

(Note that there are some spoilers below if you've never seen the original three Star Wars films, but I'm not sure why you'd be reading my blog if you haven't seen them).

Some of the home-made wrapping I did
because we couldn't find Star Wars
wrapping paper
One of our first actions was to make sure that Joy saw the original three Star Wars films prior to her party, mostly out of my fear that someone would "spoil" the surprises at the party, assuming that she had already seen them. So, starting back on May the 4th a couple of months ago, we re-watched "Episode IV" (which she'd seen once, back in September 2014, but which she didn't have much memory of). Then after school let out in early June, we watched "Empire Strikes Back" and finally "Return of the Jedi" just this past Sunday, July 5th. At this point, Joy declared that she'd seen "all the Star Wars movies" and then asked me, just to make sure. With a deep sigh, I finally relented and let her know that, in fact, there are some other movies that take place before the movies she'd just watched, but that they end up spoiling all of the surprises. One of my favorite parts of watching "Empire Strikes Back" with Joy was her debating with her self and trying to convince me that Darth Vader could not be Luke Skywalker's father because he's a bad guy and "bad guys lie, Daddy." I remember as a young nine year-old boy having many of the same thoughts and having to wait three years for confirmation that Darth was, in fact, Luke's father.

We then began searching for decorations for the party, and that actually leads to the main purpose of this post, other than to wish my daughter a very happy birthday.

My kitchen chalkboard decoration
and a REBEL Rouser Double IPA.
Get it? REBEL!?
With Disney having acquired Lucasfilm and the Star Wars properties, we figured that Star Wars decorations for the party would be easily obtained. We could not have been more wrong. We went everywhere you could think of - Target, Walgreen's, Rite Aid, Party City, and even searched online. We searched the Disney stores both online and at Disneyland. The only thing I could find was one (ONE!) plastic outdoor tablecloth, decorated with characters from the new Star Wars Rebels animated series. No cards. No gift bags. No wrapping paper. No cake decorations. We couldn't find anything. Later we came to understand that it's because the stores are culling down their existing stock while they wait for the new movie to come out later this year, so most of them won't have any new items in until September. I guess it makes some sense, but when Joy picked "Star Wars" as a theme, it never occurred to us that we were going to have to hand-make pretty much all of her decorations.

Next my wife bought Joy a really cool Princess Leia costume dress (the classic one from Episode IV) to wear at the party, but thinking ahead, I knew it would be hot outside and after awhile the dress would not be comfortable, so I decided to get my daughter a Princess Leia t-shirt.

Jedi Joy's Force-Push in her new Princess Leia t-shirt
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a Princess Leia t-shirt for a girl (not a grown-up woman, but a young 6-year-old girl)? I advise you not to try to look unless you have a lot of time, and patience, on your hands. I finally ended up having to buy her a custom-made t-shirt on Etsy, which admittedly is pretty cute but also which took me about 45 minutes to find via Internet searches.

 Maybe it has something to do with the new movie coming out, but seeing as how there were plenty of young boy-sized t-shirts with all of the other characters on them, I don't think that's the case. There's been a lot of stories in the press lately about how entertainment companies are doing a horrible job marketing "geek" culture like superheroes and comics to young girls, but I always felt like Star Wars was one of those "exceptions that proves the rule" type of properties. But as I searched for a Princess Leia t-shirt for Joy, I began to realize that the corporate mentality that "girls don't like that stuff" coupled with "boys won't wear a shirt with a girl on it" and "boys won't play with a girl action figure" has permeated even my favorite childhood fantasy, Star Wars.

As my wife and I were working on trying to figure out decorations and accessories for Joy's party, I began to really take notice of the almost total lack of female superhero, fantasy, and science-fiction characters. And interestingly, my daughter also took notice - in fact, she began to call it out to me before I had really paid attention.

"Daddy, how come the Avengers t-shirt doesn't have Black Widow on it?" 

This is from directly in front -
you can see that Wonder Woman is cut-off
One of her friends from Kindergarten had a superhero themed birthday party a few weeks ago and there was a huge bounce-house at the park, decorated with DC Superheroes. My daughter knows her heroes, so as we approached, I asked her if she could name them all.

"Flash. Green Lantern. Batman. Superman..." 

She paused for a minute, which I thought was odd, because the last remaining character is her absolute favorite."

"Daddy? Why is Wonder Woman off on the side? Is it because she's not as important as the boys?"

As I looked at the bounce-house through the eyes of my daughter, I saw what she must have been seeing every day and yet I'd never really paid that much attention. Wonder Woman was off to the side - in fact, so much so that she was nearly wrapped around the corner so that only about 2/3 of her are visible. All of the "boy" characters are shown nearly full-figured. And then there's Wonder Woman, pushed off to the side so she nearly falls off.

I guess Black Widow doesn't get cavities
The very next day at the grocery store, we were shopping for some fluoride rinse for Joy. Normally she uses the "Frozen" branded rinse, but this time I happened to spy a different bottle.

"Look, Joy! They have an Avengers rinse! You should get that one!"

Joy looked at it for less than two seconds and then announced, "No... Black Window isn't on it. How come she's not on the bottle, Daddy?"

About a week or so later, we went to Disneyland for the 4th of July to see the fireworks. While there, we decided to let Joy get a pin or two for the lanyard she wears with her annual pass. For those not in the know, Disney has literally hundreds, if not thousands, of these pin designs depicting everything from the attractions at the theme parks to the restaurants to characters from the history of Disney and of course the other entertainment properties it has acquired, including Marvel Comics and Star Wars. So as we went through the pins, Joy searched and searched but we could find no Black Widow or Princess Leia pins. There were plenty of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Doc Ock pins. There were also plenty of Boba Fett, Darth Vader, Stormtrooper, R2D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca pins. And yet two main characters from their respective franchises were ignored.

By this time, Joy had gotten very quiet and was no longer interested in getting a new pin. And I, at this point, was getting as frustrated as I'd ever been. I grew up with Star Wars and superhero comics, and I've been sharing my love for them with Joy ever since she was a newborn. I take her with me to the comic book shop every Wednesday to get our comics, I play the Star Wars score for Joy in the car while we're driving, we wear superhero and Star Wars t-shirts together, draw pictures together, read the stories, and are planning to see the new Star Wars film when it comes out in theaters later this year. And yet at this point, none of that mattered. I was ready to give up and try to find something else fun to share with Joy that's more inclusive.

Things look better when you have cake
But the thing is - I shouldn't have to give up, and neither should Joy. She does love these things - when we can find a fun Wonder Woman book, shirt, or toy, she loves it. She loves playing Jedi and using her force-push. She loves listening to the music and identifying what scene of the movie is being depicted.

While telling my frustrating story today at work, one of my clients said, "I think your daughter is going to grow up to be a big force of change for the that kind of stuff and fight for girls' rights for superheroes."

That's a nice compliment, but ultimately I'd rather that by the time Joy is old enough to do that, that things have changed enough so that she no longer has to do that.

Any parents out there want to share your experiences? Please drop me a comment below. 

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: sparkling water
Listening: "Circles" by Soul Coughing

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Judging Dungeon Designs: One Page Dungeon Contest

As I've mentioned previously, I was a judge again this year, along with fellow judges Steve Winter and Teos Abadia, for the One Page Dungeon Contest, administered by Random Wizard.

There were 97 entries this year, and each judge was asked to send over our Top 10 picks so Random Wizard could tabulate them and see which entries got the most votes so he could announce a winner. The results were... let's just say "interesting." More on that later.

Last year, after the contest, I conducted an email interview with the other judges, which you can find here, wherein I asked them their process of how they went about selecting their top picks, and any hints and suggestions they had for future contestants. At the time, I noted that ideally I would have loved to join the fellow judges at a pub, hoist a pint or two, and just chat about the contest.

We're getting a bit closer to that idea this year. When I submitted my picks to Random Wizard last week, I asked him if perhaps we could do a Google Hangout with himself and the three judges so we could more naturally about the process, and also make it more interactive by letting the contestants and other interested parties ask us questions about why we chose the ones we did, how difficult the decision was, and anything else related to the contest that people wanted to know about.

Random Wizard and the other judges liked the idea, and so based on our collective work schedules and other time management issues (I'll fess up - one day I have to be gone to take my daughter to her ballet lesson!), the Google Hangout will be held tomorrow, May 28th, at 3pm Pacific Time. Random Wizard is also going to work on recording the Hangout for those of you who can't join live, but if you do have a question, you can probably put it on Random Wizard's Google Plus Post about the Hangout at the previous link, or go ahead and leave me a comment below and I'll do my best to answer it either during the Hangout or will address it directly in the comments here.

This now brings me to - "Why do we need a One Page Dungeon  Contest?" There are lots of talented people out there, and many of you are more than capable of creating your own worlds and dungeons, and in fact might not really find much use for a "simple" one-page dungeon that might not fit into your world. This type of contest is obviously not for them.

However, having been a judge for the contest two years now, I think this type of contest offers a lot to the role-playing community. Below are just a few of my thoughts, which due to time constraints today are just stream-of-consciousness.

  • It encourages creativity. The one-page dungeon format is not easy. Trying to create a whole scenario with a map, encounters, a narrative flow, some type of objective, and a "hook", all within the constraints of one page, is extremely difficult. It takes some real creativity to make it all work without just shrinking the text so small that it's illegible. One of the things I most look forward to is not only the idea itself, but also seeing how the contestants lay out their ideas to make them work within the format. You'd be surprised what you can fit into this format if you edit yourself enough to keep from trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink into the submission. Besides layout and design, it also takes creativity to come up with something new and different that the judges aren't seeing over and over again to make your submission stand out. Reading through the submissions can give you a lot of ideas for ways to take your game that you may not have considered before. 
  • It gives you options for when you want to take a break. Maybe your whole group isn't able to get together for your regularly scheduled game, but you still want to play. Maybe you've been playing your regular game for such a long time that you never have time to try something else (a different character, a different setting or genre, or a different set of rules).  Maybe you're always the GM and while you don't want to give that up, maybe one night, one of your players could take on that role and allow you to play through a short one-page adventure just to give you a break. Any of these scenarios above could lead to even new outbreaks of creativity that you weren't expecting. Maybe the player who takes over the GM role likes doing that job so much that he or she decides to start a new campaign...
  • It can act as the springboard for a new campaign. Speaking of new campaigns, many of these one-page dungeons are so much more than "dungeons." Many of them read like mini-campaign setting ideas. Every campaign has to start somewhere. While my current campaign (of 14 years!) is based on some pretty standard fantasy tropes like Conan, some old-school D&D game worlds like Greyhawk, the Known World, and Dragonlance, and also our own world history, as I read through the submissions last year and this year, it definitely gets me interested in running a game of a completely different genre.
  • It gives players a "voice" in the community. Many might not think this matters, but I know back when I was a young teen just starting to game, it was clear that I didn't fit in with the other kids who were more into sports and hanging out at the mall. Back then, it was difficult to find people like me, and, on the whole, we tended to be smart, a bit quiet, and not that likely to have the confidence to speak up about things. But as we probably can all agree, role-playing encourages creativity and one of the first things most new role-players do is want to create things for others to look at and use. It was something I loved doing and was "good at," and where I could be in control of one part of my life. I've blogged before about doing that in my "Amateur RPG Design" columns. But, as much as I would have wanted it, I had no illusions that my designs were never going to see the light of day outside of maybe a handful of friends, because "RPGs were run by big companies." Back then in the early 1980's, we didn't have the luxury of the Internet to form a community. I would have loved for the opportunity to share my ideas with others in the form of the contest. Just knowing that somebody else was looking at and reading my ideas would have been cool. It would have made me try harder, focus more, and really work at creating something different and hopefully useful. Anybody can create home-brew stuff for their games. We do it all the time. But it takes a commitment to do so in a polished form and enter it into a contest for hundreds of people to look at and comment on. The One Page Dungeon Contest essentially empowers people who might not have a "voice" to gives them the opportunity to show their creativity and be recognized, and gives them a reason to really bring their best. 
  • It encourages young people to remain active in the hobby. This idea goes hand-in-hand with my thoughts above on giving players a "voice," but for the past two years we've seen entries by youngsters who learned of the contest and submitted their ideas. Sometimes it's easy to forget that people of all ages play these games - they're not all just like us. And while, again, for some people it doesn't matter if new people get into the hobby or not, I look at it more as a big picture thing. This is a hobby that helped define me as a person (for the better) and I'd love to "give back" to help the young people of today learn about it and give them ample opportunities to work on creating things that a larger community can see, comment on, and encourage them to keep trying, keep improving, and keep being creative. I might be a little biased as a dad whose daughter is still a bit too young to grasp role-playing games (she's getting there - she'll be six in July), but I do think it's a strong benefit of this contest. 
Those are just a few of my thoughts. To me, this contest is about so much more than just "bragging rights" for having won. But, that's just me. What are your thoughts on the contest?

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water
Listening: "Mercyless - Original Mix" by Waye Tennant

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Campaign Setting Anniversary

One of my players sent me a note this morning, mentioning that it was 14 years ago today that I began my World of Samoth campaign. Out of the original seven players (including me as the DM), there are three of us left, plus we've added several more over the years. Our current group is five strong and has been that way for the past couple of years.

At our "first session" all those years ago, we rolled up our characters, ate dinner, and then all went to the movies to go see the first Shrek movie. Our "true" first session was a couple of weeks later, when the group began with the old school module, B6: The Veiled Society, which kick-started a murder mystery involving some warring families vying for control of the city. One of those families still plays a very important role in the campaign to this very day.

Back when we started, my wife and I were not yet married (we were engaged, though, and our wedding was about six months later). In fact, of the group, only two of the original players were married at the time, and none of us had kids. Now everyone that's currently playing in the group is married and all but one of us has kids.

We've changed our snacking preferences a bit, as I've mentioned before. Now, more and more often, we include beer at our sessions as well. We're not a "soda and Doritos" type of group. Our frequency of play has lessened due to combinations of kids, business travel, and other reasons, but we still do get together (we played about two weeks ago, in fact).

I've blogged quite a bit over the years about these things, and about my campaign setting and our game sessions, so for this anniversary I thought it might be fun to show some pictures from my "Campaign Setting Book" that I've made. I started working on my campaign way back in the summer after my high school graduation, in 1988. It was actually a "reboot" or revision of some earlier settings I had worked on dating back to when I first started playing D&D around 1983 or so.

Back then, I didn't have a computer or of course any access to the Internet, so all of my campaign world research was done by going to the library and also going through my parents 30+ year collection of National Geographic magazines. I oftentimes would copy drawings I saw in those books as inspirations.

I've kept pretty much every scrap of paper on which I've written notes for my campaign setting over the years, and then in 1998, about 10 years after I'd started, I began collecting all of my notes in a big non-lined sketchbook. I started by actually meticulously re-copying all of my old notes but over time I found it more efficient to just cut out certain sections of my notes and paste them into the sketchbook. Below are some pictures to give you an idea - it's a mixture of hand-written notes, old pages printed from a dot matrix printer in late 1989 or early 1990, newer pages from around 2003-2004, sketches, and more. I'm still adding to the book although these days it's more of almost a "scrapbook" project, as most of my game-related notes on characters, NPCs, etc. are just on my laptop.

Hope you enjoy. Tell me about your campaign world for your games - is it homebrewed like mine, or do you use a published setting? Do you have a crazy notebook like mine full of hand-written notes, or are you more organized?

The first pages. On the right is graph paper that I pasted
into the book. It's got a mixture of dip-pen calligraphy I did
along with a regular ballpoint ink pen. I used the World of
Greyhawk boxed set as a template for my campaign note. Circa 1987-88.

Another piece of graph paper with a mixture of
calligraphy and handwriting, for a Language Tree
for my campaign world. Circa 1988.

This is a more recent creation for the campaign world ("recent" being about
10 years ago), for a calendar design. Circa 2004

Various sketches I did of weapons and architectural designs. Circa 1989.

Some more sketches of weapons and armor, grouped by culture. These were
actually for some "secret societies" that were employed by various merchant
houses. Circa 1989.

Sketch of a chainmail hauberk and a helmet. Circa 1989.

An NPC and a description of an organization that was
essentially a powerful mercantile league run by dwarves,
along with a rough sketch. Circa 1990.

"The Imperial Alphabet." This was hand-written with
a dip-pen with a special nib for calligraphy. I used to love
practicing calligraphy and applied it to my D&D stuff.
Circa 1987-88.

Some more weapon and armor designs. Circa 1987-88.

"Religious Items." I think I may have copied the idea
of the totem-like designs from an article for another
game that I read in an old Dragon magazine. You can
see how I cut out my old sketches and pasted them
in here. Circa 1988.
More weapons and armor designs. I used check out
encyclopedias or ancient arms & armor all the time. Circa 1987.
A product of its time: a dot-matrix print-out of some
old NPCs I had created. I've got pages and page of
these in my notebook. These were using 1st Edition
AD&D Rules, modified with Unearthed Arcana and
Oriental Adventures. Circa 1989.

Hanging: home office (laptop)
Drinking: Iced tea
Listening: "Blue in Green (Take 3)" by the Bill Evans Trio

Monday, May 4, 2015

Another Star Wars Post: New Media About A Galaxy Far, Far Away

My daughter with Princess Leia buns in her hair,
doing a Force push at lunch today at school.
They aren't allowed to wear printed t-shirts
or else she'd have a Star Wars shirt on as well.
Pretty much everyone in the blogging community has jumped onto the "May the 4th Be With You" bandwagon, and I actually think it's kind of cool. What was once a small little inside joke has become a pretty big deal in the Star Wars world, and even vendors like Internet giant Amazon are on board, with discounts on Star Wars related merchandise for today only. I would say once something's big enough for Amazon to create a sale out of it, it's safe to say it's hit the mainstream.

Below, I list a few cool Star Wars related things you might not know about that you can check out today to celebrate the day, aside from listening to the music (as I'm doing right now) or watching the movies (as I did last night - my wife, 5 year-old daughter, and I watched Star Wars, aka "A New Hope" for the second time together).

I've written about Star Wars many times before - mentioning how the old Star Wars comics from Marvel were the first comic books I'd ever read, and how my mom really helped encourage my interest in Star Wars even though she really didn't have much interest in it herself. And I've written a few times about Star Wars Day itself, in 2012 and 2013 (last year I was out of town in New Orleans for Jazz Fest, but I did celebrate by wearing a Star Wars T-shirt that day, and I saw several other people doing the same at the concert). What, if anything, do you all do to celebrate Star Wars Day?

As mentioned, if you're looking for a few other things to do, here are some suggestions:

  • TV Shows
    • I've written briefly about of this before, briefly, but you can check out "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" on Netflix, including the 6th season that never aired on Cartoon Network - the show was canceled after Disney acquired Lucasfilm before this season could be shown. Now, I'm not one who actually likes the Prequels (I've been know to say that my daughter can watch them when she turns 18 and moves out of the house, but not before then), but this series, despite taking place between Episodes 2 and 3 of the prequel movies, is quite good. It gets into a lot of background on the Force, especially the Dark Side, and shows in a much better manner than the films how Anakin is seduced. It also includes a very strong and interesting female character in the form of Ahsoka Tano, young Jedi who starts out as Anakin's Padawan but grows into herself and her role as a commander of the Clone Armies during the war. Her character arc along is worth watching the series, but there's so much more to like
    • In the same post above I linked to where I wrote about Clone Wars before, I also wrote about the new Star Wars animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, which airs on Disney XD. Originally it took me a bit to get into, as it is much different in tone than Clone Wars, but after getting used to the change, I really like the show. Yes, it's slightly more kid-friendly than Clone Wars, but the storylines are still very engaging. Watching a somewhat rogue-like Jedi Knight, who mainly tries to hide his past as a Jedi (so as not to be discovered) and is not afraid to use a blaster or to "steal from the rich to feed the poor," but at the same time also tries to honor his past by training a new Padawan, makes for very compelling drama. This is more of a "team" show versus Clone Wars, and all of the characters are interesting. The show creators also did some great work on the main two female leads, who are every bit as tough and clever as the male leads. 
  • Comics
    • The Star Wars. For those of you who are really into Star Wars, you know that George Lucas' initial script included a lot of concepts that were very different than what ended up in the movie. I'm not talking just about things like how Luke's friends Biggs and Carrie were deleted from the silver screen. I'm talking about things like how Han Solo wasn't human, the main character was named Annikin Starkiller, and he is trained in the ways of the force by an old "Jedi Bendu" named Luke Skywalker, to fights against the Knights of the Sith. There's a lot of really different stuff in here, but as a Star Wars fan it's fun to read the original script and see how different the movie ended up being. However, even better than just reading the script is reading an 8-issue comic book adaptation with gorgeous art, to help bring it all to life. Dark Horse Comics, shortly before they lost their license to publish Star Wars comics after it reverted back to Marvel, published this comic and it's one of the more unique Star Wars pieces you'll find. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available in a digital format currently, but you can still buy hard copies of the trade paperback collection over at DarkHorse.com
    • A tale of two different post-Battle of Yavin Star Wars stories. Right around the time that Disney first acquired Lucasfilm, but before Dark Horse lost the license to publish Star Wars comics, they came out with a new title called simply Star Wars. I did a review of the first trade paperback collection (which collects of the first six issues of the series) and I had very positive things to say about it. It's a refreshing look at things that happen directly in the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin, before the events of the Empire Strikes Back. I really enjoyed this series a lot. And then, randomly, after Marvel re-acquired the rights to publish Star Wars comics, what did they do? Exactly the same thing Dark Horse did! Marvel's first Star Wars comic in about 25 years was called, coincidentally, Star Wars. And it takes place immediately after the Battle of Yavin, before the events of the Empire Strikes Back. You can read my review of the first issue here. So, if you want to get a sense at how two different companies and creative teams deal with the exact same premise, this is a perfect opportunity to read two different stories. And, the thing is - they are both good - different, but good. You can read the Marvel Star Wars comics digitally on Comixology or ComicStore.Marvel.com. It's not been collected in trade yet, so you'll have to buy the individual issues.
Enjoy Star Wars Day, and May the 4th Be With You! Please do drop me a comment below, or Tweet me, Facebook me, or Google Plus me and let me know how you like to celebrate Star Wars Day or if you checked out any of my recommendations above.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: tap water
Listening: "The Asteroid Field" by the London Symphony Orchestra (from The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack)

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