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”
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”
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.
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.
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”
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.
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!
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”
A few weeks ago, I finished up the latest fantasy football* (FF) season in 2nd place in my work league and 5th place in my friend league. Having played for 3 seasons, I am mostly past the initial disgust about bad luck and mostly jaded about the entire process. Having gotten this far, though, I do have a few different lessons from the experience.
(*for the uninitiated, fantasy football is a game where a group of people (usually friends) play “games” in a season where, each week, your team’s performance is determined by the statistics of how real-life NFL football players perform (e.g. you get 6 points for a touchdown or points per yards gained). Everyone drafts their team before the beginning of the real NFL season, and over the course of the season, you can trade with other teams, pick up and drop players, and change your lineup week to week. )
1. Actual game knowledge can be very deceiving.
“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.” When you’re on a fantasy football website, there are going to be projections and rankings and all sorts of information to help you make good decisions. I have seen a lot of real football fans (i.e. people who actually watch and follow football and not just fantasy) try to outsmart the predictions with some obscure knowledge, but my experience is that typically, the football-naive (but fantasy savvy) people do better. Maybe you heard that your running back plays really well in sub-50 degree games or saw how fast he makes cuts and should crush a slower set of linebackers: the experts probably know that, too, and that he only plays that way in indoor stadums, and that his left guard still has a lingering injury.I think we tend to overvalue game knowledge in fantasy when rankings have already accounted for those facts.
2. Don’t trust anyone. Trust everyone.
(Author’s note: you know that thing I do in my writing where I write about one thing but am actually writing about something else? Yeah, that’s happening below, so even if you don’t care about video games, you may still like the rest of my post. However, you may not like any of it. Just don’t use the topic of video games as a predictor for your interest. Read as you will.)
I was catching up with my friend Reno, and he mentioned that he was, with shame, playing a lot of Destiny. Despite coming from the makers of Halo, this video game was highly criticized by the community for becoming unreasonably difficult relatively quickly. To progress through the game, one had to do a lot of grinding (and not the kind you get kicked out of high school prom for). When I mentioned criticism to Reno, he countered that he didn’t really see it as a grind because the gameplay was fun for him, and he wasn’t too worried about leveling and strengthening his character.
I didn’t know how to respond.
I recently wrote a blog post about how I wanted to move away from video games that require grinding, as many role-playing games do. Perhaps a childhood of video games desensitized me to the joy of watching my character progress, and I recently have been left wishing I could skip past the gameplay and just get to the end goal. In my tirade, I think I forgot that video games are supposed to be fun and worthwhile in its own right. The in-game goal of progressing through levels isn’t supposed to reduce that pleasure. Grinding isn’t grinding if you’re having fun. In fact, just calling it “grinding” presupposes the monotony of it. It becomes a grind if the gameplay isn’t fun in the first place.
I don’t play any games these days that I consider grinding in a traditional sense. I do, however, play some video games relatively seriously and consider it an exercise to improve and get better. For example, I started a blog to catalog my progress and lessons in StarCraft 2. Despite having evangelized the game and related my passion for it, I never actually played that much StarCraft. To have actually improved, I probably should have played at least 5 to 10 games a week. To my shame, I only played that much a handful of times. It’s a common phenomena known in the community as ladder anxiety: it’s intimidating to play, the games are stressful, and the result is exhausting. If that doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you probably have a healthier understanding of fun than many StarCraft players.
Ironically, I think that the gameplay of StarCraft is fun. What I suspect went wrong is that I took a fun activity and reframed it as practice. When my first priority ceased being fun and instead became self-improvement, the games unsurprisingly were no longer fun. Each game was a test where suboptimal performance was a disappointment. I knew that my mechanics weren’t good enough: I needed to practice to click the buttons and react fast enough. Every game against a real human being felt like a recital, where I could hear myself playing the wrong notes all along the way, and whether I finished the piece or not, I could only remember the struggle. By turning StarCraft into an activity to improve in, I made a future goal my requirement for satisfaction–it was grinding. I was grinding to improve myself.
Looking back, I thought that framing StarCraft into practice was a brilliant move without consequences. I could take something that I enjoyed (StarCraft) and add structure and progress to it. I fooled myself into over-optimism about the idea by glossing past the potential downsides. Looking back, I think I undervalued the intrinsic value of video games as a source of fun, and by reframing it otherwise, I diminished the driving factor to play in the first place.
Extrapolating to the rest of my life, I see the same pattern across many of my activities. Whether it’s board games or fantasy football, activities lose their charm when I figure that I need to be good at them. It changes epiphanies into research, participation into performance, mistakes into disappointment. It doesn’t even need to be competitive (though the competition doesn’t help, either): I can induce this attitude in isolation, and it results in me stopping out of an activity entirely when I have gone too far and no can longer enjoy it at all.
For example, I was a tuba player in high school. I really enjoyed band and playing music, but it was mostly structured as a lot of hard work. I learned a lot of work ethic through it. Since then, I have picked up the tuba a handful of times, but never really sustained it. I tell people that it is because I will never be as good as I was when I was practicing a half-hour to an hour daily, and that’s just disheartening. That explanation makes a lot of sense until realizing that I want to play music again to have fun, not to be good, and those two things don’t necessarily need to be tied together.
The same is true for racquetball: I only picked it up again in the past 2 months after a few years of not playing. I kept telling myself that I would never be as good as when I was practicing with my friend Dave twice a week. Despite being a competitive game, I forgot that I can have fun with it without playing at my best and beating everyone.
To self psych-analyze, it comes from my upbringing in primary and secondary education. Our system is totally a rat race, where even extra-curricular activities are competitive because we are all putting together college resumes and trying to get ahead in any way possible. My band director put this thinking together succinctly as something along the lines of “We have fun, and it’s fun being good.”
My director was right: it can be extremely rewarding to be good at things. However, I think there’s a dividing line between activities that we do for pleasure and for gain. In our education system, it turns out that everything is done for gain. In real life, this is it. This is our lives, and some things are worth doing without a greater goal. My yoga instructor in college often reminded us, “Remember, this is adult fitness: do what you’re comfortable with.” Yoga class isn’t about having the best downward facing dog in the room: it’s exactly what each individual wants it to be. Sometimes, it isn’t work that leads to fun: it’s the fun that leads to the work.
I was traveling for the past 2 weekends, and I had plenty of time both to visit with friends and family and to reflect on my own during long car rides. I was so excited when I got back home with a list of things that I wanted to learn to do or to do better: driving a manual, going rock climbing, speaking another language. I even made a bucket list for them so I could work through them methodically and become the modern-day renaissance man. Looking at the list now, the entire exercise feels ridiculous. Not only do my backlog lists usually fail, I realize now that I didn’t put things there because they sounded like fun. I put them on my list because I wanted to be good at more things.
Not to say that I shouldn’t do any of these things. But maybe I should do them because they sound fun. Maybe that way, I won’t be grinding until I’m disheartened. They can be the fulfilling lifelong activities I imagined instead.
I recently have been engrossed by storytelling. Finding stories everywhere has been awesome.
My fascination started with joining a book club about 2 years ago. Before book club, I hadn’t read fiction since high school, and most of that was mandatory. In between, I read various nonfiction and enjoyed the epiphanies and moments of wonder. That type of engagement was very different, however, from what I experienced when I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son, a Pulitizer Prize winner for fiction. I couldn’t put it back down, as the suspense and pulled me through the (digital) pages. I had forgotten how compelling a good story can be and what it was like to really live in another world, another life.
Around then, I got back into tabletop roleplaying games and began running my own games. As a dungeon master, I was responsible for creating the adventures for my players. I had a hard time at first: I was so focused on creating a big, inhabitable world filled with its own vitality that I couldn’t add enough detail about what might happen during an actual session. My next campaign was set in the world of Tekumel, and I wanted to scope it better. In that world, I crafted an epic story arc as a framework to progress through each session. In learning how to DM, I read this post from The Angry DM, which suggested that a boss fight could use a three-act structure to add drama to typically monotonous processes. It was a revelation that storytelling techniques could drive a game.
Then came “Welcome to Night Vale”, a podcast about a fictional town where surreal and horrific things happen and are presented in a fake radio show. It has a Lovecraftian sense of psychological horror but presents it in a humorous way. The different stories in each podcast are ostensibly unrelated, but there’s often a common thread between them and between episodes. Julie and I listen while we do laundry, and we laugh and puzzle together about it. As a purely audio format, so much is conveyed in Cecil’s (the narrator) voice, and we can only imagine what horrors he talks about.
I recently posted about how my video game preferences had changed to put greater emphasis on stories rather than gameplay itself. I just finished Alan Wake, a survival horror video game. You play Alan Wake, a horror writer who goes on vacation but finds out that the story he is writing is coming true. As you play through the game, you find pages of the novel along the path, either describing things that have happened from a different perspective or foreshadowing future events. It was brilliant: the overall presentation had a very cinematic feel to it, but I felt even closer to the characters because I controlled Alan through the events. Minute for minute, it was slower than reading an equivalent novel or watching an equivalent movie, but the interactivity and immersion of playing it was phenomenal. And even the time itself was well-spent as I became more invested in Alan himself.
Most recently, I picked up Marvel Unlimited because I have been absorbed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe of movies and tv shows and wanted more background. I haven’t read comics since high school, and even then, I was reading scattered comics that I found at used bookstores rather than working sequentially through story arcs. I read through several major events, then got into Captain America, reading at least a half-dozen comics every day. With issues coming monthly and spread over years, the comics strung together story arcs that both had the satisfaction of resolution while also immediately pulling me into the next one. I foolishly kept reading to find a stopping point but always ended up reading another when the last page left me hanging.
Once I started to see storytelling in several different forms, I began to pay more attention to it in the regular media I consume, like movies and television. There are the shared elements of storytelling, but the different media add allowances and constrains as well. The format, whether written, audio, or visual obviously has a huge impact. Whether it’s a one-shot, like a movie, or serial, like a TV show, affects how the storyteller keeps their audience’s attention. And with video and roleplaying games, the interactivity adds immersion and unpredictability to the story.
There’s something about storytelling that really resonates with us as humans, and I’m somewhat amazed at how well I had distanced myself from it during college. Even so, the nature and influence of storytelling is somewhat troubling to me and my recent ways of thinking.
But that is a story for my next post.