GM Tip: How to create suspense in resolving actions

Short Version of the Tip

When a player takes an action that requires a roll:

  1. Ask the player to describe exactly how they are doing it
  2. Complete their description right up to the moment that decides success or failure
  3. Ask the player to roll
  4. Narrate the resolution (or have the player do it)

It may sound simple, but it’s not actually how most GMs resolve actions. Continue reading “GM Tip: How to create suspense in resolving actions”

Try out “College Contagion”, my one-page RPG!

After my last stint writing and publishing a tabletop adventure, I was inspired to take a shot at writing a rule system. With a few playtests and a PDF from an online Word template, I now also call myself a game designer by sharing “College Contagion.”

Continue reading “Try out “College Contagion”, my one-page RPG!”

Watching Tape

I spend a lot of time preparing for my Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games. Not only do I plan the adventures themselves, but I also watch, read, and listen to advice about being a better Dungeon Master (DM). And for fun, I watch streams of other D&D games, which is also preparation because I am studying what the DM is doing in their game. Some DMs are amazing, and some are only okay. I can tell by watching them, and that made me wonder: which one am I? Continue reading “Watching Tape”

“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!”

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.

Storytelling in multiple media

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.

Old Friends, New Ways to Connect

Sometime relatively recently, Facebook added videos to the newsfeed, and it taps into the worst part of me. I don’t want to get sucked into the newest viral video, but it just starts playing when it scrolls into view, and I have to stop to see what happens. My better side wants to look away, but I can’t.

Like everyone, I have toyed with the idea of tossing my Facebook account. My uses for it are few. One, it brings traffic to my blog since it’s difficult to find otherwise. Two, it offers up addictive content that I would rather let the masses of reddit than my few friends pick for me. Three, it tells me when people get married or move somewhere, which is momentarily interesting but only relevant in conversation when I am told in person and awkwardly reply, “Oh yeah, I saw that on Facebook.”

Four, and most importantly, it is the best way for people to find me and for me to find them. Most people have phone numbers and emails, but those change and are hard to find, whereas most everyone I know has Facebook. It’s a great way to keep in touch, especially on birthdays as I noted in my last post.

Since then, I have been getting back in touch with high school friends I haven’t talked to or seen in many years. Last night, my high school friend David came over to meet up with several other high school transplants. Even though he had been in the area for awhile, we missed each other and hadn’t We talked about old times, like the competitions we battled in, the teachers we had, and the prison-like experience of school*. We all had a great time, but I don’t see how it could have happened 20 years ago.

Earlier this week, I played the new Dungeons & Dragons with 5 of my friends from high school, living across 3 time zones in 4 different cities, over roll20 using Google Hangouts. We had the inevitable technological difficulties getting setup, but within a half hour, we were laughing over the “tabletop” experience shared between all of us.

I also play StarCraft weekly with friends again spread across the United States. We have kept it going for over a year now, and as much as I like StarCraft, I appreciate it more for the people. Two of my college roommates join regularly and have gotten to know some of my high school friends decently well talking about Game of Thrones, motorcycles, and never fighting alone.

And perhaps the most regular contact I have is a Google Hangout persistent group chat I have with my draw group from college. I started it as a way to just share fun links without having to start new email chains, but it erupted into very lengthy conversations about work, high culture, low culture, inside jokes, current events, and everything in-between. I liken it to having everyone sitting in a room together except where everyone can talk at the same time. It’s hilarious and keeps us each engaged exactly as much as we want to be.

When I think at a high level about all of these things, the immediate wonder is how people kept in touch without the internet. My blog should be evidence in my own belief about the value of long form communication, but even then, I see letters as time-consuming and limited. I guess I could call, but there is some amount of anxiety about interrupting other people. As such, I find that tech as a medium has 2 advantages.

One, it can put us into the same space so I know I’m not bothering anyone. I myself am fairly available, and being present online in persistent spaces like a group chat can indicate that.

Two, it can arrange for shared experiences and events, such as the games mentioned above. Like exercise, staying in touch with friends works best when organized around a schedule. Despite the importance of people, we typically organize our lives around what we do, not who we do it with. Thanks to video chat and associated services, I can play tabletop games and hold book club meetings with geographically divided people.

All things, however, come with an opportunity cost, and I can think of two general issues. First, it’s possible that this sort of connection with distant friends reduces the likelihood of and displaces in-person interactions. Since we can stay in touch this way, I may feel less of a need to see them in-person. I see this as less of an issue because travel is generally an issue, and the opportunity to engage with them at all has kept them closer.

Second, it displaces more local, community-based interactions. Because i can play D&D online with my friends, I don’t go to my local game shop to play. More generally, I don’t have a tremendous drive to go out and meet new people because I have other ways to connect. Most people I know have difficulty keeping up with old friends, but it’s not that big of a deal because we just make new friends.

It’s a tradeoff, but technology has offered us new ways to maintain contact with people geographically divided. I think it’s a personal decision as to whether that is better or worse than connecting locally, but having the option is awfully nice. The technology has improved beyond what I feel are more shallow forms of communication and hopefully will continue to progress in this manner.

* no windows, no leaving campus, confiscation of all cell phones, no facial hair, random drug testing, and pat-downs at graduation. Did I miss anything?

My Google+ Hangout Success Story

This past weekend, 3 friends and I met up to play Dungeons & Dragons in the early morning, mid-afternoon, and late night, in California, Washington, the UK, and Korea. Simultaneously. And we could all see each other and share notes and drawings with each other. Technology just works when we can easily do things we haven’t been able to in years, like meeting up with friends from junior high.

Since we were split across 3 time zones exactly 8 hours apart, one of us is working at literally every hour of the weekdays, with some spill onto the weekends. It took us maybe 4 weeks to schedule our first session, but it was well worth it to get a chance to catch up under the premise of playing Dungeons & Dragons, a game that I will try to sell you on in the next 2 paragraphs.

Dungeons & Dragons (or D&D) is improvisation with a few dice rolls as a final arbiter for how things go. The players take the role of adventurers in a fantasy world of swords and magic controlled by the Dungeon Master (or DM). Unlike most tabletop and video games that have rules to dictate what you do, D&D lets you dictate your actions and makes the DM determine how those flesh out in the game. Want to stiff-arm retreating goblin instead of just swinging your sword? Or do you have a 5 minute argument to give the innkeeper about why his fedex quest was a waste of time? Just about anything goes.

Despite its nerdy association, D&D is very social: in this last session, we extensively discussed a battle plan that was obviously (and hilariously) flawed as soon as we began fighting, I described how my character was pretending to play dead to get a jump on a hobgoblin (which also didn’t work when I failed to roll well enough to bluff the enemy), and we interrogated a rescued hobbit about his plans. Like any good game should, it encourages interaction between players.

Being able communicate in speech and gestures, share documents with character details, and draw out various rooms is critical for D&D, and in truth, nothing beats sitting around a kitchen table. Even so, a Google+ Hangout was about as close as you can get without being physically present. Group video chat let us all look at each while talking and brought back the surprisingly important gesturing to conversation. While waiting for our last player, we watched a YouTube video together of the promise of custom games in StarCraft 2. The chat window let our DM copy-and-paste in written descriptions of the scenario, as well as being used as a log of in-game events. We shared Google Docs describing our various abilities (and also used an online character sheet I wrote to keep track of our stats. Check out my character!). The sketchpad took the place of the game board as we drew a grid and placed ourselves on various parts. And we even had a few laughs over the mustache and hat effects.

I have admittedly been somewhat fearful about Google’s integration of everything into their platform. With my email alone, they basically control me, but when they know what information I’m looking for (search history), where I’m going (google maps), what I’m working on (google docs), and more, I’m concerned about how much they know about me. At the moment, I’m not even using Google Chrome (which I admit is all-around the best browser) as my primary browser because I’m scared of the vertical integration of products in addition to the horizontal integration they already have.

But integration isn’t entirely to be feared. Google+ Hangouts are awesome because Google glued a lot of good features together in a single product. We spent surprisingly little time fighting with technology to make things work, and our game just went smoother as we discovered more features to use. At this point, this post likely sounds like an advertisement, but I’m just really excited about how well it work, so let me round out this post.

I’m very cynical about a lot of technology. Despite how “social” we’re being pitched that technology like facebook or mobile phones are, I think that these communities built on a virtual substrate are making us more disconnected than ever. I’ve been taught about the importance of physical embodiment in the world, and I worry tremendously that we’re replacing meaningful interactions with impersonal bursts, 140 characters at a time.

But this time, technology worked. When my friends and I are spread across 3 continents, it is impossible for us to get together for a quick check-in, much less playing a game. With this, however, we were instantly back to joking around and sharing the latest news with each other. I’m still anxious for the opportunity for us to all be in the same room again, but until then, I’m glad we have another way of hanging out  like we were.

Life at a Magic Tournament

(Note: if you actually want a tournament report and specifics about what I played, head over to my other blog)

Last weekend, my roommate Tom and I woke up early, hoped in a rickety white van, and drove across the bay to Oakland to participate in Grand Prix: Oakland, one of the competitive, open, official Magic: the Gathering tournaments. Allow me to provide some background on many important topics here.

Magic: the Gathering is a card game where you put together decks of creatures, sorceries, artifacts, and more to play against someone else’s deck in an effort to reduce them from 20 to 0 life. With over 10,000 unique cards and a couple hundred new ones printed each year, Magic is a potentially costly hobby that involves a lot of thought and strategy to be successful at. I myself have been playing on and off since high school and now play mostly with my drawmates in my dorm. Most recently, I had the opportunity to teach a student-initiated course on Magic here (for credit) where we actually applied real academic topics to Magic. Pretty nifty.

So Magic is just a game, but players take it very seriously. There are professional Magic players today, and Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Magic, run many tournaments, from weekly tournaments in stores with as few at 8 people to National and Worlds tournaments with 5 digit payouts. Needless to say, the community has invested a lot in this game, and it’s a big deal. This particular type of tournament, a Grand Prix, is an open event, meaning that you don’t need to win any tournaments to qualify to go, but also qualifies you for more exclusive tournaments. With only 20 a year, both local players and international players will attend, either to move up in ranking or just for chuckles.

Tom and I happen to fall in the latter group. In the wake of teaching the class and the convenience of Oakland, I figured this would be something we should do for the experience and convinced Tom to come along. Neither of us were willing to invest the time or money to play seriously, but we put some thought into the decks and headed out.

The event was held at the Oakland Mariott City Center, and we arrived arrived 8:30. After paying our registration fee, we headed over to the Burger King for their hearty food, then went back to the exhibit hall. On the way in, I noticed and laughed at a sign, “Open to the public.” I don’t imagine that a room full of people battling with cards is a very hospitable setting.

To be honest, I was expecting a lot more spectacle surrounding the event, but other than a few stores who had set up shop as sellers along one wall, there wasn’t much to look at. The room was filled with tables to play Magic games, which is probably where the most exciting things would happen. A stage at the front had a table set up for “feature matches” between well-known players, but other than that, you can imagine what a room of tables looks like.

The players meeting started just after 10, when everyone took a seat to listen to the necessary announcements. Blessed by my last name, I ended up sitting across from Raphael Levy, a French hall of fame Magic player, which I only confirmed by sneaking a look at his deck list. In fact, over the course of the day, I saw several other well-known Magic players, which just goes to show you what news I pay attention to.

I was pretty shocked that someone would come overseas for this tournament. I knew that players traveled for tournaments, but flights are very expensive just to play Magic. Even beyond the pro players, regular people came from far away just to play Magic. The people I ended up playing against came from LA, Utah, and Las Vegas, and I talked to a German man while I wrote up my decklist. Tom and I complained about the $30 in gas and other costs for parking and tolls, but in the end, we didn’t sacrifice much at all to be there.

I’m not sure how many of the 700 people there traveled to come, but they were certainly geared up to play. Instead of being ecstatic and joyous, people were generally pretty quiet and focused on doing well. A few clusters of people were chatting, but it was certainly not a lively party. Once the actual tournaments started, the biggest excitement was running to the places around the room where matchups were paired.

I played 3 rounds of the tournament before deciding to drop out of the main event. As fun as playing is, I figured I should take in more of the general experience of being at a big tournament and took a second look at the sellers and watched some of the other matches.

Although not my usual crowd, being a part of the Magic community kind of made me realize how far into it I’ve gotten. The community is just a small part of the nerd community, and of course it has its own jargon and common ground. Just walking around, I would hear snippets of conversations about how “getting thoughtseized turn 1 allows dark depths to wreck zoo” and such, and it reminded me that even if I wasn’t nearly as serious as many of the other players, I was very familiar with the game.

In psychology the week before, we discussed how expert knowledge can enhance working memory. For example, given a very short presentation of a real chess board, a chess expert can remember the positions of all the pieces, whereas a novice might only remember a few details. At the tournament, I realized I had developed the same knowledge for Magic as well. Looking at a game position for maybe 4 seconds, I could quickly absorb the entire situation: what decks both players were playing, about how far they were into the game, and, given life totals, who was more likely to win at that point.

Tom and I left just before 5 with the intention of not showing up to one of these events again. It was a good experience to actually see how the pro scene works to relate to students if we decide to teach the class again, and I did get to meet Gavin Verhey, a Magic writer who helped us design the class. Since we don’t play competitive, though, we’re not in it for the main event.

So it’s back to playing in the dorm room, also open to the public, though perhaps with slightly fewer cards to be swarmed by. But it’s okay. We make up for it in Tom’s diet soda and N64 Super Smash Bros.