Being Johnny Diceseed: Making New Gamers

When my wife and I first watched Netflix’s Stranger Things series, I was struck (just like so many of my peers) by how powerful the D&D nostalgia was. We were those kids in 1985 (minus demonic monsters and psychic girls). Much has written about the connection between us 40-something gamers and the Stranger Things kids, so i won’t rehash it here. But an experience last night reminded me that you did not have to be 12 in the 1980s to be those Stranger Things kids: you can be 12 right now, in fact.

 

Obviously, I make no secret of my geekery and neither does my wife, so it was not unusual that Dungeons and Dragons came up in a conversation between her and a friend at work. It turned out this friend, S, had bought her son J a full set of the D&D 5th Edition books (Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, Monster Manual as well as the Starter Box) for Christmas. Part of the reason was because S wanted J to put down his tablet and interact with friends more. J and his buddies had tried to navigate D&D on their own, S told my wife, but had crashed and burned. That is when my lovely wife offered up my services to teach J and his friends how to play D&D. I was to be Johnny Diceseed, progenitor of a whole new crop of D&D players.

 

I will admit, at first I balked a little. I am used to running games for strangers at conventions, but those are usually adults, and if there are any kids they tend to be with their parents. My sense of humor and imagination are not PG rated, and f-bombs, shit jokes and bloody decapitations are likely to fly during any given moment in one of my games. In addition I was not confident in my ability to teach kids the very basics of a game that is so ingrained in me after 30-plus years of playing it. Are you a parent? Do you remember the frustration of trying to teach a child to ride a bike when you could not actually articulate how to keep the bike upright? That’s what I was worried I was up against.

 

Nonetheless, I agreed. After all, the couch is cold. As the event got closer, I found myself rehearsing things in my head, planning out how I would explain this aspect or that aspect. I remembered being me trying to master the weird game in the red box and I got both a little misty and excited to impart that on a group of kids. I have purchased D&D for friends’ kids before, trying to pass on the hobby, and have offered advice to those kids. My own kids have been resistant, with my son being more active than tabletop gaming allows and my daughter being too young until recently. This would be the first time I really tried to teach the basics of the game to kids I had not met before. It would be much more like those convention experiences of a table of strangers.

 

None of my plans survived contact with the enemy, so to speak, but even so I was able to herd the kids and get them pointed in the right direction. J was quiet but deeply interested. Of the other four kids at the table — at boys about 12 or 13 years old — two were obviously natural gamers. One, B, is going to be their DM — he says not, and they want to make J do it because it is his stuff, but I can spot a DM a mile off and B is going to be it. Two of the other boys were a little more distracted and had little interest in the nuts and bolts of their characters, and if I had to guess those two would play for a while on occasion before wandering off back toward other activities.

 

One thing I found to be difficult in the process what that non-gamer adults never understand how long D&D takes. The kids wanted to learn to create characters AND play the game. Our window was about 2 hours. I got the kids through the rolling stats, picking race and class and spells, part of character generation and then told them we would fill in the other details as we went. Then, I ran them through a forest ambush with a hobgoblin and some goblins to give them a taste of the combat rules. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. It is hard to articulate until you sit down and think about it, but there is quite a lot that happens in your average game of D&D. No single 2 hour session can hope to teach it all. But, again, as Johnny Diceseed my job was just to plan a 20-sided acorn.

When I learned to play D&D, we had just a 32 page player’s guide and 64 page DM guide to navigate, along with a solo adventure to explain the basics and a pre-stocked dungeon to get the DM started. I like the D&D starter set and think the Lost Mines of Phandelver is a great introductory adventure, but I actually prefer Paizo’s Pathfinder beginner Box for teaching the very basics of tabletop D&D style role-playing. Kids just getting into D&D now have a lot more material to try and digest.

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If it were up to me, I would teach a group to play D&D over the course of four sessions. The first one would be a short adventure with pre-generated characters to teach the basics of play and the assumptions of the world of D&D. The second session would be a character generation session where the players went through the entire process, had time to read their options and so on. The third and fourth sessions would be a somewhat longer adventure using those newly minted characters, designed with the goal of introducing the variety of activities that can happen in D&D, from dealing with NPCs to delving dungeons to traversing the wilds to selling loot and upgrading their gear. By the end of those four session, I think any group of kids that was interested in D&D should be able to navigate their way through the sometimes arcane rule books and adventures.

 

My philosophizing aside, I got to see at least a few gamers made last night. They cheered when they eviscerated a goblin and laughed when the barbarian whiffed twice in a row. They only got to peek through the door into this world, but they decided based on what they saw they were going to set their shoulders against that door and push. I am excited for them, for all the adventures they will have and the friends they will make and the worlds they will create.

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Getting Weird: Why I Can Never Run A Grounded Campaign

It is all my players’ faults. I set up the campaign, one where magic is rare and magical creatures are alien and dangerous, where culture and technology are based strictly on a real world society at a particular time and where the primary conflicts are built around maintaining order as the larger social structure collapses. What do they do? They decide to play dragon men with a penchant for building armies of street urchins, demon bound warlocks that want to sell magical trinkets and marry into the nobility, civilization hating gnomes at war with colossal squirrel royalty and all manner of other weirdness. What’s a DM to do?

 

The answer, it turns out, is to say, “Yes.” Or, at least, “Yes, but,” with the possible inclusion of the occasional begrudging, “Fiiiiine.”

 

First of all, I can hardly blame them for grabbing on to the weird fantasy elements I myself put into the setting.

 

I only like “realism” in my fantasy insofar as it gives me firm foundation on which to build. Moreover, historical cultures, even in pastiche, provide ready resources when I do not know a thing or need to fill in details that I might not have considered. What do nobles in the court wear? I look up 15th century English noble attire on Wikipedia. What kinds of names do these people have? There’s a website for that. Is plate armor worn yet? I happen to have a book within arm’s (ha!) reach  to tell me. It isn’t that I am going for historical accuracy, just something approaching consistency or verisimilitude.

 

But all that mundane historical stuff gets very stale very quickly. I grew up on a cocktail of D&D, comic book super heroes, video games and pulp science fiction and fantasy. If there is a more incestuous family of weird fantasy influences, I’ve not had the pleasure of partaking. So once I established the lords and ladies and guilds and what not, I threw in the dimensional rifts from which monsters spring, the ancient Celtic and Norse inspired faerie races, the lost civilization of unknowable otherworldy wizards whose vaults and libraries wait to be plundered for arcane secrets and the city sized dragon that killed a king and brought about a (regional, at least) Apocalypse. This is the structure of the fun built onto that solid foundation and it should be no surprise to me (and, yet, is every time) that the players want to not only engage that stuff but expand on it leave their own weird fantasy marks on the world. That is, after all, why players show up at the table in the first place, isn’t it?

 

What I find interesting in my own process is that I always think I want to rely on my own imagination. I think I want to lay out the world and its denizens and locations and systems and then let the players move through it freely, yet constrained — as if it were a museum, all look and no touch. I do that every time, it seems, but just as inevitably I realize what my kids already know: museums aren’t actually any fun unless they are the sort in which you get to touch stuff. Maybe I think too much of my imagination, or too little of the players’, or it is simply that I cultivated a thing in my mind and I just want to share it so I am a little jealous of it in those first few outings. The reality is, though, that players improve the exhibits. Imagine how much more fun Michelangelo’s David would be if the Accademia Gallery kept a box of costume clothes and water based paints nearby and told visitors to go at it? Letting players dress up and paint the world I have created is like that.

 

This isn’t to say there aren’t pitfalls to allowing players to run amok, creatively speaking. First and most obviously, they usually do not have the whole story as it relates to setting secrets. If a player wants element X to work one way, but in the DM only notes it is actually part of situation Y it can be a little touch to navigate. Usually I can say something as simple as, “That thing is sort of off limits to players,” which has the added benefit of suddenly attracting that player’s attention to it. After all, I wouldn’t both including a secret if I did not want the player’s to uncover it, would I? Other times it is easy enough to let the player (and their character) believe a thing is X when it is actually Y. The look on their faces will be worth it in the end.

 

To be honest, either of those scenarios are relatively rare. Usually a player comes up with an idea or extrapolation I would never have considered. That’s the beauty of the cooperative nature of D&D and other RPGs. People complain about “movies made by committee” for big budget Hollywood releases, and for certain too many cooks can ruin the stew. But in D&D, I have found that generally speaking the more input, the more ideas floating around the table, the more fun everyone has and the better off the game is. Plus, it has the added benefit of taking a whole lot of work off my shoulders and, frankly, I am a Lazy DM.

Embracing the Virtual Tabletop

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Thanks to Fantasy Grounds, I have officially slain my inner Luddite.

I am not a technology averse individual. I am as tethered to my smartphone as much as any modern person. I own computers and tablets and gaming consoles and weird robot ladies that live in little black towers that play music when I want. But one place where I consistently resisted embracing technology was table top, pen and paper roleplaying games. Certainly, whenever I would run the Pathfinder RPG I made use of the extensive on-line SRD and associated apps, but I refused to actually play online. I resisted the siren song of Maptools, Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds, despite having friends that successfully used each, as well as simply getting together to game on Google+ Hangouts or Skype.

I think my resistance was based on the way I perceive myself as a Game Master. When I run a game, I rarely sit down. I see my roll as referee and storyteller, but most as entertainer. It is like an interactive one man show or stand up comedy for a select group of hecklers. Though I am not sure I ever articulated it in my protestations to VTT enabled friends, I thought that my style of GMing, what I literally brought to the table, would not translate to a microphone and computer screen. And if I am being honest about it, how I perform as a GM is embarrassingly important to me.

What finally made me reevaluate using a VTT was when I realized I wanted to play more often with people who lived far away. Once a year I drive 500 miles to cram 30 hours of table time into 4 days to continue a campaign that has been going on for 20 years and counting. It is awesome. No gaming experience matches it for pure immersive fun. But it is also limiting. That world and its stories are told in annual event stories. Little is accomplished outside of those events so the characters don’t get the kind of small scale, personal stories that created the foundation on which we still play. It turned out that the game system we use for that campaign, Mutants and Mastermind 2nd Edition, was not supported by Fantasy Grounds, but the newer 3rd Edition is.  I decided to give FG a try, to see if we could use it and then whether we wanted to make that edition transition. Somewhere along the line, I happened to accidentally fall in love with running Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.

Fifth Edition is fully supported by FG and even free, at least in its Basic Rules form. Being completely unfamiliar with FG but very familiar with 5E I decided to mess around with FG using the 5E rules. With the help of the friend who had been successfully running games on VTTs for years, and who was ever berating me for avoiding the technology, I learned just enough to be dangerous — to my wallet. Fantasy Grounds is not an inexpensive platform for the GM, especially when it comes to running D&D. A quick check on Steam shows that you can get the Complete Bundle for D&D at a cost of over $300. If you want to be able to host players without them having to buy the software, add another $100 for the Ultimate License, or pay a $10 monthly subscription fee. I tend to view the purchase of gaming materials not from a “how much does this one thing cost” perspective but a “hours of enjoyment” perspective. Even at the high cost, if I use FG even half as much as I plan to it will come out to be some of the least expensive entertainment ever.

As an aside, I think that is true of table top RPGs in general. Sometimes books do cost a lot, and sometimes they sit on your shelf, but if you actually play an RPG regularly its cost per hour of entertainment can’t be beat.

After that initial exploration of Fantasy Grounds, I quickly fell in love with it as a platform. I invited far flung folks with whom I have and/or currently game to give it a shot. That resulted in almost universal excitement. Now I have more potential players than I know what to do with and am developing a new campaign world — about which I will blog in the near future. There are still technical hurdles to overcome — we have gone through a couple VOIP solutions so far — and scheduling is likely to be a bear. Even so I am excited for what the future holds: how long before it is a VRTT*?

*Virtual Reality Table Top