My Favorite Things (with Evidence)

People love to share their favorite things. They write gift guides. They sing songs about them. They form committees to publish lists. They will bore you endlessly at parties. However, most of that is just talk. To really know what someone’s favorite things are, they need to put their money where their mouth is: what things did they actually spend money on? Continue reading “My Favorite Things (with Evidence)”

“Spies Like You” is published!

I’m excited to announce that I have achieved #4 of my 2017 New Year’s Goals: I published a one-shot RPG adventure called “Spies Like You” earlier this month. Although it was self-published, six people (with only one self-proclaimed shill) have purchased it so far, so with a grand total of $1.94, I am officially a professional writer.

Thank you WordArt for at least one graphic.

Continue reading ““Spies Like You” is published!”

The Many Appeals of The Elder Scrolls Online

Despite having faithfully played PC games of many genres since I was 4, I never played an massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPGs or MMOs) until Julie and I picked up The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) at the recommendation of a friend. I could say that my self-restraint kept me away from extremely addictive MMOs, but in truth, I didn’t play any growing up because they required monthly subscriptions paid via credit card, and I didn’t have a credit card. These days, many MMOs only have a one-time upfront cost, which is how ESO got us. Continue reading “The Many Appeals of The Elder Scrolls Online”

My Life on Shiny, Spinning Disks

When Julie and I got back from our road trip from Oregon, we still had a few chapters left on The Golden Compass audiobook. At first, I figured we could finish it inside while we were unpacking, but when we took out the CD, I immediately recognized a problem. It’s 2017, and the only CD drive that we own is in the car stereo. Continue reading “My Life on Shiny, Spinning Disks”

Running a D&D Murder Mystery

This last week, I ran my first murder mystery adventure for my weekly Dungeons & Dragons group. I have designed many adventures, written a handful of mystery stories, and critiqued many mystery book, but I had never quite combined those into writing a mystery adventure. Continue reading “Running a D&D Murder Mystery”

Surviving the Bane of Road Trips

I grew up on the family road trip. Every summer, my family would pile into the minivan and travel across the United States to national parks, amusement parks, and swimming pools at Fairfield Inns. I would pack a bagful of toys to occupy myself in the car, and over the years, those toys turned to library books, then copies of the USA Today. Some of my best reading was in the car on a random interstate because I had nothing more interesting to take my attention.

My family abided by a strong, tacit principle of keeping yourself entertained. My sisters and I spoke only to change the temperature or get a snack from the trunk filled with cereal, granola bars, and fruit taken from continental breakfasts. Altogether, it was an undemanding experience that we were all well-prepared for and very comfortable with.

Despite my extensive experience on interstate highways, road trips these days make me nervous. I mostly travel via plane since road trips only make sense for a few California destinations. However, my habit of road solemnity is apparently the anomaly. On my first Los Angeles road trip, I was shocked when a friend took shotgun with only a water bottle in hand. He wasn’t planning on sleeping: he was planning on talking for 6 hours.

I often ramble just to avoid awkward silences, and over the course of several hours, that is a lot of space to fill. I consider myself a decently interesting person, but I can only babble for 2 or 3 hours before running out of things to say. And if we’re doing the road trip to LA, that leaves us somewhere between remote and nowhere with only uncomfortable silence to keep us company.

Despite my inadequacy for the task, I too have embraced this chattering mindset. In fact, I now consider it my job as a road trip passenger to talk and keep the driver occupied. It’s only fair for all of us to share the load, and an engaged driver is a better driver.

Still, I had hoped there was a better way to road trip together, and I think I might have it. On the drive back from LA this past month, my cousin Adam introduced Julie and me to what I see as the future of non-awkward driving: Dungeons & Dragons (or just about any role-playing game). Specifically, I’m referring to the style of D&D that plays like improv theater using dice to resolve situations with chance. It is brilliant in several ways.

First, it’s not just a way to kill time: it is legitimately fun. Games like Contact and I Spy aren’t fun. If they were, people would play these games in regular life or at dinner parties, too. On the other hand, D&D is fun enough that there are conventions and businesses built around it. It is still somewhat niche, but this game has something for everyone.

Second, it is totally flexible with the number of people participating. It works for pairs. It works for 7 people stuff in a minivan. It works when someone falls asleep. It works when you’re skeptical friend realizes it is awesome and joins half-way through the game.

Second, you can play by only talking. Most board games require boards or cards to look at or share information. And if you were playing D&D as a tactical combat game, you would need a big grid map, miniatures, and a table for your players to surround. However, if you’re just focused on the storytelling, you can play the entire game in words and not worry about setting something up in a car. Also, it doesn’t require much packing or preparation. It’s nice if you can have character sheets printed ahead of time, but these days, you can find everything you need on the internet and use a dice rolling app.

 

Third, the driver can participate as well. Reading is a great way to pass the time in the backseat, but that doesn’t keep the driver entertained or engaged. Sleeping is also great but highly discouraged for drivers. Other than needing someone else to click the dice roller on their phone, drivers can participate fully.

Fourth, road trips fix the worst part of D&D: the time commitment. As much as I love D&D, it does take a very long time to play. Combat is slow as you go turn-by-turn, and even out-of-combat interactions are filled with long decisions and scene descriptions. Although it is engaging, an evening of D&D can fly by without much progress. On a road trip, however, that’s not a bug. That’s a feature.

So the next time you are packing for a road trip and dread how you’re going to get through the car ride, remember D&D. Or if that sounds too intense, check out Fiasco, an amazing storytelling game. Or try out improv theater games or group storytelling. All it takes is a little imagination.

Lessons in teaching a video game

This past week, my coworkers and I spun relived junior high with a Diablo 2 LAN party. To fit the stereotype, we got pizza for dinner and picked up Doritos and Mountain Dew to power us through 4 hours of gaming. Although Diablo 2 (D2) is mostly cooperative, we split into 2 teams and raced to beat Diablo first*. Unfortunately, the winning team only got half-way through the 3rd of 4 acts, but despite the sore eyes, wrists, and right index fingers, we had a ton of fun.

*for reference, speed runners can beat D2 in less than 1 1/2 hours. Here’s a video of MrLlamaSC doing a speed run for an event where he explains in detail exactly what he’s doing

Well, most of us had a ton of fun. Although many of us have fond memories of endless Baal runs, we also had a few Diablo 2 newbies. Some were slightly too young and had played Diablo 3. Some had just played a lot of other video games but never action RPGs. Some hadn’t played video games at all. It’s was a mixed group, and in retrospect, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience for them. Continue reading “Lessons in teaching a video game”

D&D is the player’s game

This past weekend, I ran my Dungeons & Dragons* (D&D) game like I do once a month. Unlike most months, however, I came out of the 2 1/2 hour session feeling like I had run a pretty good adventure.

It helped that I was better prepared than usual. Over past sessions, I have wavered from totally improvised scenarios to meticulously detailed maps and character personalities, and I certainly prepared more rather than less this time. I also planned out the adventure more intentionally in how I wanted the story to flow rather than just filling in blanks.

I think the biggest change came when I realized there is no perfect way to play D&D: it’s a game entirely subject to the players’ preferences, and a DM does best by preparing and running the game their players like.

As a DM, I had been moving to a style that I thought would be more fun. I was interested in RPG systems with more improvisational play like Dungeon World. In those systems, the players and DM act and react quickly and fluidly to make up the story and world as they go. Although the DM needs to have a general direction for the adventure, there aren’t a lot of details. Rather than laying out a sandbox, the DM is always supposed to present a pressing situation to keep the scene moving forward.

In recent sessions, I had prepared according to that style, which is to say that I didn’t prepare much. As the party moved through a dungeon, they asked specific questions about the exact appearance of the area and tried to compose a complete understanding of the scene in order to reason through a safe course of action. This ended up being very difficult for me since the details didn’t exist until the questions were asked, and I ended up not creating a rich, satisfying experience.

Put differently, I think my players expected that the game was set in a fully fleshed out world that they could observe, deliberate, and plan to deal with in response to the situation. In my improvisational style, however, I was presenting them with a very narrow perspective into a situation that would lead into another totally made up situation. Although I knew that I was running the game for the players, it didn’t really occur to me how much of my own agenda I was bringing into the game by pressing for this style.

The fascinating part about D&D compared to most games is that D&D doesn’t have an “right” way to play. In most games, there’s a optimal way to play that leads to winning. That may be having the perfect basketball shot, or developing perfect aim in Halo, or executing the perfect strategy in Settlers of Catan. Of course, most games have imperfect information or randomness to leave something to chance. Despite that, many games have fixed win conditions and requires skills that you can practice and improve. If you look back after the game, you can see how “I could have done that a little better” or “if I hadn’t made that mistake, I could have won.”

In D&D, it’s about the experience of playing and the story that you have created that matters, not the act of winning or losing per se. Different styles of play aren’t just different strategies to try to win: different styles of play are how different people choose to enjoy the game. You get better over time at figuring out how to use your class abilities or spells, but so much of the enjoyment and purpose of the game is about the roleplaying that players who are overly focused on the numbers are derisively called “munchkins.”

The flexibility of D&D as a game is quite liberating compared to sports, video games, and even much of life, where the competition and relentless optimizing take over. Although I think I consciously was aware of that freedom, I am still seeing different impacts of that structure years later, and hopefully, it makes me a better DM, too.

*If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, D&D is a storytelling game where each player is a hero in a Lord of the Rings-esque adventure. the Dungeon Master (DM) comes up with the setting and premise for the adventure, and the players describe (in normal prose) how their character attacks a pack of orcs or parleys with a royal diplomat. The DM responds (sometimes in turn or sometimes requesting a dice roll to let chance determine the player’s success), and the story moves forward. D&D is one of many roleplaying game (RPG) rule systems that add some structure to basically imaginary play.

My first 2.5 hours of Overwatch

For quite awhile now, my Tuesday night gaming group has been playing Heroes of the Storm, but with the release of Overwatch a week ago and the excitement around that, we decided to give it a shot. We had briefly played Team Fortress 2 maybe a year ago, but it never really stuck, and I was worried that a similar team-based shooter with classes and objectives might fall into the same category. However, I have a few reasons that it might be more popular.

First, I was guessing it might be a short evening of gaming since Overwatch games tend to go between 5 to 10 minutes wheres Heroes games go for 20-30 minutes. However, 2 1/2 hours later, Julie and I determined it was probably time to stop playing for the night.

Second, the Heroes group tends to be relatively static in its appeal. Just from other friends who happened to be online, however, our Overwatch group ended up including, myself and Julie, a high school friend in Dallas, a college friend in Boston, a coworker and his girlfriend in the Bay Area, and my Spawning Tool partner in Florida. I think it has broad appeal.

Third, we actually talked during the match. Tuesday night gaming started with StarCraft, and my biggest gripe with it is that StarCraft is just too intense: no one talks because it requires so much focus to control your base and army. In fact, I think the only less social “group activity” is watching a movie. Heroes requires less focus, has downtime while respawning, and requires coordination, so it’s slightly better. However, Overwatch (at least how we play it) is casual enough that we had plenty of banter in and around matches.

If you have played TF2, you will totally understand how Overwatch works. If you have played any first-person shooter ever, you will mostly understand how Overwatch works. There are 21 characters split into 4 rough categories each with 2-ish special abilities and a basic attack. With that, you run around a map trying to hold certain areas or push a cart along while your team of 6 fights the other team of 6.

The experience of playing the game is extremely smooth: the matchmaking service found our games within about 20 seconds, which is a huge relief coming from queues in Dota 2 or Heroes that can take minutes. After that, the games will just continue from map to map with short breaks and recaps in-between. Maybe this is standard in shooters these days, but I was pleasantly surprised with that the experience around the game. The matchmaking appeared to work quite well as we stomped through our early games but then started running into more balanced and challenging opponents later in the evening.

The game feels like a Blizzard game in that they took an existing genre, stripped away the complexities developed over time, and offer a more elegant experience. Overwatch is to TF2 what Hearthstone is to Magic, or what Heroes is to Dota 2, or what Diablo 3 is to Diablo 2. Some players will lament how Blizzard removed key mechanics that truly distinguish “skilled” players from casuals, but their games just get to the core of what’s fun and does only that. It may not seem right, but at first, but if you imagine that the Blizzard game came first (e.g. Hearthstone was created before Magic), everyone would call the other game convoluted.

Anyways, I think this game will probably be a keeper. I think we will be rotating back and forth with Heroes on Tuesday nights, but if I can control myself from playing for an hour, it’s really fantastic to have a quick, fun game that doesn’t take at least a half-hour to play (like Heroes) or leave me exhausted (like StarCraft). If you want to play, I’ll be around. Just add me on battle.net, and we can play!

First Thoughts on the HTC Vive and Virtual Reality

In the last 2 weeks, both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive came to consumers as the newest, fanciest virtual reality (VR) hardware available. Maybe you have had an opportunity to try out VR before, but I get the sense that this is the year and iteration on VR that really has the industry excited. Thankfully, my coworker Chris happened to pick up the HTC Vive and brought it into the office for all of us to try it out.

I will repeat the same thing you will hear from everyone else that explains nothing: you have to try it to understand how cool it is. I started out by playing Space Pirate Trainer, a game where Space Invaders-like drones float around you, and you have 2 blasters to shoot all of them down. The game has a few interesting mechanics, such as a shield you can “grab” off of your back, various blaster settings, and a Matrix-like bullet time to help dodge drone shots. Continue reading “First Thoughts on the HTC Vive and Virtual Reality”