A Little Less Conversation

Our intrepid Adventure Company Brand Adventurers(tm) were left trying to figure out what to do about the two dragon eggs that they had located in the cavern situated at the back of the bandit camp. The group appeared to be worried that the eggs were far enough along that breaking the shell would unleash a deadly scourge of wyrm that would finish off what the two guard drakes and the camouflaged roper had started, or run the risk that the Cult had the eggs monitored. Truth be told, the party was in no condition to get a hang-nail, let alone engage in another scuffle without a good eight hours of downtime.

They elected to leave the caverns without doing anything to the eggs, which turned out to be a relatively minor affair of back-tracking out to the abandoned bandit camp. Once outside, they agreed to take a short rest to recover some stamina before setting out for Greenest.

In town, the party thoughtfully turned over several thousand gp worth of valuables to Governor Nighthill, who was beside himself with gratitude. He had a message for the party from the monk Leosin: meet him and his ally Onthar Frume in the city of Elturel. Leosin had left the party fresh horses and enough traveling supplies to make the six day journey. The party rested, and then set out (hopefully for the last damn time) from Greenest.

Elturel is a trading hub along the River Chionthar, and it’s brochure highlight is the mystical “second sun” that hangs above it. This eternal light never dims, meaning that anyone living in the city needs to invest in some serious light-blocking curtains if they want to get any sleep. The party entered through the northwest gate to a bustling marketplace. The party asked about the Order of the Gauntlet, the group to which Frume belonged, and were directed to the tavern named “A Pair of Black Antlers”, which was named because it would be difficult for drunks to say, and that would be hilarious.

Frume turned out to be a frat-dwarf, who spent the next 24 hours dragging the party around Eturel so they could drink, race horses, spar, and misbehave in general until the following night when Frume, Leosin, and representatives of other interested parties laid it down for the party.

The Cult of the Dragon had, until recently, been active in the East where they were primarily concerned with creating dracoliches (which wasn’t given the terrifying weight in the module that I think dracoliches deserves, but I only work here), but were pressing West into the Sword Coast for some unknown reason. They seem to be very focused on dragon hatchlings, and in increasing their devotion to Tiamat. Their activities are known — raiding remote villages for valuables — but the “why” and the knowledge of “where” these treasures are ending up is what the group is looking to discover.

It was revealed that Leosin is a member of the Harpers, a secretive do-gooder society. Both he and Frume make recruitment offers to the party in exchange for access to their extensive regional resources. This is a carrot, and the stick is that they want the party to infiltrate the cult’s caravan that carries the bulk of the treasure in order to find out where they’re going, and why they need to be there.

They know that the caravan has a head start, but they also know that they can intercept the cult in Baldur’s Gate. Frume has chartered a boat that can take the party down the River Chionthar in two to three days, where they can find work as a caravan guard either in or near the cult’s wagons in order to keep an eye on the proceedings.

They were advised to sleep on it.

*   *   *

To be frank, this session sucked, as I figured it would.

Up to this point, the chapters had been what you could call a stereotypical D&D game. A little bit of expository glue to get the players to where they need to be, and then the lure of treasure to get them to move from room to room, killing things as they go.

Last night, and in the near future, there’s a lot of “worldbuilding” in effect. The module doesn’t do it, except in providing some basic information to build off of, like what Elturel is like, what Frume is like, and so on. Filling the “flavor” is the job of the GM, of course, which means that this where the difficulty comes into play.

The party wanted to leave the cave, so they left the cave. They wanted to get to Greenest, so they went to Greenest. They wanted to travel to Elturel, so they…you get the picture. At any point they could have had random encounters, but…why? They had just come off several weeks of fighting stuff, so a random bandit encounter would be banal filler for filler’s sake, and would have slowed down the game to “at least one combat encounter per session” pattern which is predictable and tiring.

That would be OK if I didn’t know that the next several sessions are going to be about “players playing”, not “players fighting”. The sleuthing that the players are going to have to do in following this caravan is going to require a level of play from all of us that I think none of us seem to be equipped for. I’m going to fall back on the excuse that we’ve become so addled by years of CRPGs that we’re no longer able to conceive of the freedom that tabletop RPGs offer.

What I need to do is to spend more time with the upcoming sequences and put together more of a framework than the module provides. Yes, this is kind of a “no duh” statement; it’s the GM’s job, after all. I’ve read a lot of things On Line(tm) that tells GMs that they don’t need to put a lot of prep into their sessions because they’re meant to be organic, but until we break through this wall that’s keeping us from that organic play, I’m going to need to have more materials on hand. Some situational tables for random happenstance. Some well-conceived NPCs to interact with. Some random encounters. Anything to get past the “You want to travel to X? OK, you arrive at X” that we experienced last night.

What I think the players need to do is to take more responsibility for moving the story along, and more importantly, to make it their own. I felt that last night there was a lot of stumbling over half-assed situations in order to fill a vacuum that should have been owned by the players. For example, the module suggested that the players should cozy up to Frume by playing out the carousing that he wanted to engage in, but the players were so taken aback by the idea that they were wasting time that I just flat-lined that part and skipped to the progression of the story. There’s going to be a lot more situations like these in the coming sessions, where the players are going to need to be the primary drivers, and I am the one to react, not the other way around. I don’t want to feel put into the position where I need to drop hints or nudge anyone in the direction laid down by the module because I don’t think that’s fun for anyone: it’s more work for me, and it’s way too “by the numbers” for what tabletop RPGs are all about.

The College Experience

My daughter once wanted to be a veterinarian, but as she got older she realized that she couldn’t deal with blood and the inevitable euthanasia situations. But she is an excellent artist for her age, and she “specializes” in anime-inspired drawings. After returning from PAX East this year, it dawned on me that there were a lot of educators who had booths at the show that were providing information on game design and development, as well as animation and 3D artistry. So when I got home, I started looking around…at colleges…for my 14 year old child.

It made me feel old. But I also feel that this is the right time to be doing this. Of course, it all hinges on her maintaining her interest in art and animation. If she decides she wants to get into another line of work, all current bets are off. But 14 isn’t that far from 18, and figuring out options now will at least cover the discovery aspect for when we have to buckle down and really get to work.

It seems timely in other ways, because I’ve recently heard several stories on the radio talking about colleges and their practices. The majority of these stories have been…unpleasant and unflattering to these institutions. Today, for example, I learned about the application to acceptance ratio, and how some “top tier” schools will actively and personally encourage high-scoring SAT students to apply, only to deny most of them so that the college can crow about their acceptance ratio. Most of the stories I’ve heard have been focusing on the widely held belief that all college students are aiming for the highest level name college that offers what they want simply because there’s a mental link between well known schools and the rate of success of its graduates. But these stories then throw down that going to a prestigious school only offers a higher rate of bumping into someone who might help your career later on, and that the quality of education varies wildly between the top tier schools, and in some cases can prove inferior when compared to lesser known or even relatively unknown schools.

I went to a state school which happened to have a good reputation for biology (which is what I was in for), but there were a lot of flaws with the “concept” of the college experience. Up through high school, you’re graded on your performance. Grades and GPA are the meters upon which you’re evaluated. When you enter college, the gears shift dramatically. You can do really, really well in college, but you may find that you’re ill-equipped to enter your professional field because once you’re in college, it’s not what you know, it’s almost entirely who you know. That’s why I’m working as a web/application developer: I wasn’t one of those outgoing, always at the professor’s office hours kinds of student. I did my work — and did pretty well, except in math-related subjects — but I had absolutely no one wanting to look at me because I lacked linkage to anyone of note in the biology field. I once begged for a work study position by offering to wash glassware, and the one time I did stop by a professor’s office to ask her thoughts on what kind of studies would fit into a specific career, she made no effort to hide the fact that she felt I was wasting her time.

Still, the name brand of the school never meant much to me, and I’m thinking the same when looking at destinations for my daughter. What a name means to people doesn’t necessarily equate to the education that students receive, especially when the name is linked more to sports, or the mythology that “the best” CEOs and other people in powerful positions went to Ivy League schools (Surprise! Most do not). No matter where you go, two plus two will still equal four, so it’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to pay for the lesson of learning that truism.

What matters to me the most is that my daughter receive an education in the subject of her choice that best fits what she wants to use it for. It may be difficult, as even large schools with many resources only have so many to use towards individualizing their courses. I have…concerns about how well my daughter will fit into a framework which isn’t constantly focused on the narrow band of what she wants to accomplish, but there’s still a whole four years to go to train her that “well rounded” is the base, and it’ll be up to her to use that base upon which to build her own, personal specifics.

Right now, I’m not overly concerned with the process of looking at colleges for my daughter. It’s certainly not in her mind at this point. I’m passively collecting and perusing institutions, finding ways to eliminate those which are for-profit, tuition mills, or atrocious reviews from current and former students. It’s really easy for colleges and universities to talk up their programs, their resources, their alumni, and their exclusivity, but it’s another thing to see whole swaths of people kicking their alma mater to the curb. Those are the cons you need to put together with the pros put out by the marketing departments to get a good sense of what lies in the middle, and if that middle is worthwhile enough to apply to.

From Bad To Worse

I’ve nuked more blogs than a lot of people have ever run so I can’t remember if I mentioned it here or elsewhere, but I’m still kind of in this gaming slump where I’ve got a lot of icons on my desktop/games on my dashboard but very little interest in clicking on any of them.

For a while there, I was playing nothing but Elite: Dangerous. Then I kind of took a slight detour into episodic gaming with The Wolf Among Us, Tales From The Borderlands, and Dreamfall Chronicles. There was some World of Warcraft in there, followed by a whole whirlwind of other games like Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag (thanks to the much-better-than-Game-of-Thrones show Black Sails), Trove, and the alpha of SkySaga. I bought, installed, failed at, and then uninstalled Lords of Xulima. Then there was the new player experience in The Secret WorldThe Elder Scrolls Online went B2P, Star Citizen has it’s 1.1 update, and I saw someone playing Defiance, so those made a comeback. Over on the PS4, I downloaded a bunch of PS+ freebies like…I can’t remember their names. I got my new bass and so picked up Rocksmith. I still have Far Cry 4, Diablo III, and Dragon Age: Inquisition sitting there. I bought Helldivers because the Twitterati were playing it and I wanted to play with them, and that dragged in Warframe for the same reason. I pre-ordered Etrian Mystery Dungeon for the 3DS, and got the Pokemon Shuffle for free. I started playing my daughter’s copy of Fantasy Life, months after the community has moved on from it. I bought a lot of Unity lessons online, and some tools that I thought might help my projects move faster. There’s also the weekly D&D game, and now a play-by-post Numenera session.

However, my fuck-budget is at zero recently. I’ve stared at things in the hopes that my mind might snap to something, but no…I have the shell of a Tuesday night schedule for TSW, and D&D on Thursdays (turnout out to be alternating Thursday). If it weren’t for a calendar, I don’t think I’d bother sitting at my desk or on the downstairs couch at all. I just learned about the first DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition, and my first reaction should have been “awesome!”, but instead was “well I don’t think I’ll ever get back to that game to really care”.

Still, I find myself looking through Steam, and through my library contained therein, with a restless eye. I put stuff on my wishlist. In passing through the stack of Steam games, I find titles that I forgot that I had purchased. Nothing really jumps out at me. I know I mentioned this before, somewhere, and I wonder if I am really coming to the end of my interest in gaming. Like, not hyperbole-end; more like practical-end.

Thing is, I’m not sure I really care. I think I am finding less of a point of sitting down and loading up a game. I’m not getting the satisfaction out of them that I had been getting for so long. Lately, the idea of a game has been pretty enticing, but the practice of playing the game itself has been extremely lackluster.

I self-destructed Levelcapped.com because I stopped caring to have a dedicated gaming blog, and I’ve abandoned my Quixotic campaign to get the gaming community to grow up and fly straight. I’ve only been writing about gaming here because I have no idea what else to write about. I’m sure as hell not going to write about politics. I’ve tried to make a go of the video blog format, but I’ve recorded about twice as much content as I’ve posted, mainly because I can’t be bothered to jump through the hoops of transferring and uploading.

I think I need a new hobby. Not an additional hobby, but something entirely new. Something not-geek-related. Over the weekend I bought a French press after a discussion about the failings of the Keurig-industrial complex. As I was filling the carafe this past Sunday morning, I thought “I think I want to be a snob about something.” My brother in law is a beer snob (and also a brew-master at two breweries, so he kind of has to be), and my friends are also particular about their beer. Maybe I could be the same about coffee? But that takes research; I don’t think I really have the interest, considering I have to limit my coffee intake lest I blow a hole in my stomach (I’m on medication for that, so it’s not just paranoia). I do have a lot of home renovation projects that need to be done, and I think I might like to get in on that, but A) I have no tools, and B) we need a lot of materials…both of which cost more money than buying video games does.

My entire being is devoid of being an “expert” on anything. Not “Internet expert”, but real deep knowledge expert. I’m not even really all that good at my job, which I’ve been doing for almost 15 years now (I mean, I’m good, but stop me on the street and hit me up with a question and I’d probably divert your attention and run and/or push you into traffic). I like thought experiments, but staring at the wall isn’t considered a “hobby”, or at least not a fulfilling hobby.

I think that’s it: nothing I do is “fulfilling”. I am not making any progress in anything. I’m just being in a place. That’s usually the kind of feeling reserved for retirees and people who have reached a specific and deserved plateau, of which I am neither. So I need to find something fulfilling. I have no idea what that is.

Do What You Love

Sometimes platitudes work; sometimes they’re not worth the paper they’re written on (or the breath they’re spoken with).

Case in point: “Do what you love”. This is a phase whose gravity is the greatest when directed at recently graduated high school seniors or starry-eyed college students.  Expecting kids to decide on their vocation with nothing but the equivalent of a handful of pamphlets to help them make up their minds, the advice to “do what you love” seems less like something fit for embroidery and more like an epiphany. Why wouldn’t you dedicate your life to something that you love doing? Why would you subject yourself to spend your life — your only life — doing anything but what makes you happy?

There’s two problems with this. The first is that we can’t all be sleep-study, ice cream testing Netflix QA subjects. Humanity has been spending the past several hundred years working towards a goal of making life increasingly easier for itself, but there’s still a whole lot of shit-work (relatively) that needs to be done. Things like making sure the trains run on time (literally), or that sewage is routed and dealt with, or that kids get their shots, or that cars are made available for sale, or that bread is baked, floors are cleaned, shelves are stocked, airplanes reach their destinations, nations are defended, A/C  units are in working order, and a billion other jobs that get done but which we never realize are actual jobs. Did you ever stop to think that somewhere, someone is making ball-bearings? Or the plastic bristles that make a broom more than just something you could use to play shuffleboard? People do those things, but consider this: Who the hell grows up wanting to be the man or woman who makes broom bristles?

The second problem is that when you do what you love to do, you fly dangerously close to the sun. When you get that close to the sun you may feel all nice and warm, but you also run the risk of burnout. Doing what you love is really only a small percentage of the greeting card. It comes with an implied asterisk that is so implied that no one ever really considers it to be there at all.

What you do is important. Where and how you do it is even more important still. For example, when I was doing desktop support for a national health insurance company, I spent a lot of my free time building web sites. I built blogs before the word “blog” was a thing. I worked with API systems before there was REST and JSON and fancy stuff like that. I fought (and lost, sadly) legal internet battles over domain names. I loved it. It was awesome. I loved it so much that when I had the chance to do what I loved, I took it without hesitation.

I think that was probably the biggest mistake of my life. I now loathe web development. It’s a cancer in my life. There is absolutely nothing enjoyable about it, but the kicker is that I know exactly why, and it’s not because web development has changed in any negative way. It’s the association based on where and how I do it that’s totally ruined any and all enjoyment for me. I’m not a business-minded person; I’m a technical person, which means that I’m smart enough to know that going into business for myself is guaranteed to end in unmitigated disaster. That means I need to work for someone else. Web development isn’t all done with Nerf guns and open-concept office space; I’m sure that the majority of the sites you see on the Internet (and the under-the-water part of the iceberg representing all the sites you will never see) are built under corporate auspices, and we know how corporations are almost universally poison to the kind of processes that people usually think about when they think of “web development”. The reality is that, like anything else, doing design and development for a corporation involves hands on a keyboard. That’s it. Dictates come from a committee that knows little to nothing about what you do, and doesn’t care. Designs are dictated by the marketing department, with a fuck-all towards actual usability. Got a great idea on how to make the site as awesome as all the hipster design and development wonks in San Francisco are espousing? Tough shit. Boring forms and corporate colors are the limits of your creativity.

That’s to be expected, though, right? Corporate culture is so anti-excitement that the best you can hope for is to be able to say that you’re employed by this time next year. But a lot of the process of learning comes from doing and experimenting and in feeding off the energy of like-minded individuals. Tech people love learning new shit, but unless you’re lucky enough to win the “where you live” lottery and get a job for the 0.000001% of those hip companies you hear about at disproportionate rate, your continuing education is limited to what you can swing on your out-of-work time. This is why “doing what you love” is such pathetic advice. We can’t all do what we love, and often times when we find out how we can, we have to accept that doing it means doing it in a soul-crushing environment that drives us to hate what we love not because what we love or love about it has changed, but because having to do it day in day out in a suffocating environment extracts all of the joy from it.

So find something else to love? That’s about as overly simplistic as “do what you love”. There’s a Rubicon everyone crosses in their professional career which makes it next to impossible make such a massive change. The will may be there, but it’s not just changing a job like you do in high-school; it’s changing a career that you spent years and maybe even decades immersed in. Not only would you probably need to go out for re-education, which takes dedication of time and money, but you’re fighting ageism, and would need to resign yourself to the fact that switching careers late in the game means starting over at an entry level position as the low man/woman on the totem pole. Pay is cut, benefits are slashed — and yet you’ve still got a family to support, bills to pay, and a life to lead that might not be able to weather such a drastic change.

So, suffer for eight hours a day, five days a week so you can continue to spend the weekends in the manner to which you’ve become accustomed, or jump ship and risk throwing away your actual life in the pursuit of something that could very well just end up being exactly what you were trying to get away from in the first place? Some people would say that the choice is not a choice at all: do what makes you happy. A closer inspection shows that, like the advice of “do what you love”, there is no guarantee that you will ever be happy with what you do. There’s too many external factors that you have no control over. If you’re lucky enough to do what you love in an environment that fosters your love of that thing, congratulations! You’ve come as close to winning the lottery as you can get without having bought a ticket. But the bulk of the world isn’t — can’t — be that lucky. We’re stuck doing the jobs that are needed to keep the world moving towards ever greater convenience for humanity, and where the best we can offer when asked how our jobs are going is that we’re really looking forward to retirement.

Slack

Social media is great, but it’s  not really for everyone. Yes, there are those who prefer to not have their laundry hanging out in the yard for some morally questionable time-traveler to steal (because in the future they can figure out how to subvert the laws of time and space, but can’t send anyone back in time with a jumpsuit), if by laundry we mean written words, and by time-traveler we mean anyone and everyone on the Internet. While some social media outlets allow you to keep your business private between participants, you’ll still be under the thumb of the operators who are parsing your every word for their own benefit.

Closed conversation systems have fallen by the wayside in the wake of the open-the-doors-to-everyone social media, so my friends and I have started trying Slack*. It’s being sold as a collaborative tool for companies and other project-minded folks, but we’re not that ambitious. We usually conduct our daily correspondence via carrier pigeon telegraph smoke signals EMAIL, dammit. which is OK because it’s really the lowest common denominator in online communication. But it’s got issues, like being the preferred mode of communication for your geriatric relatives who think writing in 36 point Comic Sans about the stupidity of the other political party is still “pretty amazing”. It’s also really easy to cross conversation by delay. And there’s no really good way to store info for later (organizing by folders and tags, sure, but if you’re OCD about keeping your email as clean as possible…)

Slack’s primary selling point is live chat. Yes, the same live chat we’ve had since the early 90’s (coincidentally, the last time email was actually “pretty amazing”). But it’s got modern perks like inline image and video embedding, public and private channels, and document sharing. So overall it’s not super cutting edge, except in that “everything old is new again” kind of way. We can also sub-divide our participation into channels. And all of this info persists between sessions so we have something to refer back to that might have been meant to be retained, or might have just been mentioned in passing.

*I’m not saying that Slack isn’t peep-holing your conversations. But their purpose of providing a place for business to gather would lead me to (hope) believe that they’ve got an eye on privacy.

Hanging with Mr. Roper

mr-roperIt had been two weeks since our last D&D session, which ended with the party backed into the empty kobold barracks after an unfortunate encounter with Langdedrosa Cyanwrath the half-dragon and his minions.

The group started out this week by moving back into the chapel of Tiamat where they had faced Cyanwrath, in order to search the bodies of the berserkers. They had left the room in such haste last session that they forgot there was an ornate chest at the foot of the intricate statue of Tiamat in the corner. While the ranger seemed oblivious during a trap search, the fighter was able to notice that the chest was sitting on top of a pressure plate, and taking a cue from Raiders of the Lost Ark, the players swapped the chest for a dead body and discovered some of the treasure from the cult’s many raids.

A trip through the east passage brought them into a double-decker room. The ranger “gracefully” — in quotes — descended the stairs face first, but didn’t seem to alert any enemies initially. The lower half of the room contained two guard drakes who seemed to be engaged in their namesake activity around two large, smooth objects that looked very much like stones.

Once the ranger moved about the room to do some recon, he was surprised by two projectiles from the far end of the cave: a glue bomb, and a fire bomb, both of which he was able to dodge. The party discovered another depression at the far end of the cavern which contained four kobolds. The dwarf leaped into the pit and cleaved two of the creatures with a single stroke. The monk took out another, and the fourth kobold was so intimidated by the display of raw fury that he dropped his weapons and cowered in the corner. Being the only one who spoke Draconic, the dwarf learned that the strangely shaped stones that the drakes were guarding were actually dragon eggs. Beyond that, he had no useful information, so the bard put a crossbow bolt through his forehead.

Feeling confident that the drakes couldn’t climb the 15 foot wall of the pit they were in, the party stood around on the edge like state workers on a highway project as they debated their options. They chose to use some of the grenades that the kobolds had, sticking one drake with the glue bomb, and igniting another with the fire bomb.

Then, out of the dark end of the cavern came a tentacle that wrapped itself around the ranger (it was really not his day) and dragged him from the edge into the depression.

It was revealed that the creature at the end of this tentacle was a roper, a stone-like creature that had been overlooked in the dark recesses. Most of the party jumped into the pit to help the ranger, which allowed the drakes to get revenge for the glue and fire attacks.

The combination of the drakes and the roper proved to be quite the match, with two party members falling below zero HP. The druid was on perpetual stand-by, however, ready to fire off Healing Word should anyone drop dead. First the drakes were taken out, and then a concerted effort focusing on the roper managed to steadily reduce it’s life. The bard cast Cloud of Daggers on top of the roper, who surprised the party by scaling the rock wall with it’s myriad of tentacles, removing itself from the deadly cloud. The party was eventually victorious, though, managing to take down the deadly creature and leaving them with a decision to make about the dragon eggs.

*   *   *

This session ran an hour overtime, mainly because we spent the better part of the first hour learning that you could buy inflatable My Little Pony sex-dolls from China for as little as $99 (in bulk). If you arrived here because of the My Little Pony keyword search, I’m sorry that you head to learn about that from a random blog on the Internet, but forewarned is forearmed.

The session was dedicated to the dwarf, who seemed to be succeeding in most every attempt she undertook, being invaluable in retrieving the chest of treasure and in the questioning the kobold to learn about the dragon eggs. We have opted to use the cleave rule from the DM’s guide, mainly because the dwarf has been consistently doing some massive damage when she hits. The cleave rule states that if the attacker does more damage to a healthy target than the target has in total HP, any additional damage is transferred to an adjacent target. This came in handy last night when she landed a critical hit to a healthy kobold, doing six points of damage to a five HP creature. The extra damage point rolled to the adjacent kobold, but since it was a critical hit, the dwarf was able to roll a 1d10 for another four damage, with the end result being that she took out two kobolds with a single swing.

The roper was quite the challenge. The module actually says that it’s potentially deadly for third level characters, but it pulled no punches, grabbing party members and drawing them to within biting range. The beak of the roper does a whopping 22 damage, which is normally more than enough to fell your average third level player, but most of the party was still damaged from their fight with Cyanwrath and his berserker minions. Keeping at range wasn’t the best option, as the roper could reach the entire cavern from it’s corner. Personally, I would have liked to have seen the party try and make a break for it, conjuring images of tentacles whipping through the air and the party members parkouring off the cavern walls in an attempt to get out of the chamber without being pulled back in. But judging by the night the ranger was having, it might have turned into a “sacrifice the elf” kind of situation had they tried that.

Where’s All The Multiplayer?

I checked out a post from MassivelyOP (kinda hard not to just called them “Massively”, but there ya go) recapping a PAX East panel on “Where Did the Multiplaying in MMOs Go?”, and was going to write a comment, but I then remembered that commenting on those sites is usually a Bad Idea. I have this warehouse-sized space, so I might as well fill it up instead.

The one central thing that I believe has killed multiplayer in MMOs isn’t LFG tools, or trivial content that doesn’t require grouping, but actually the players themselves. And certain other game design decisions.

I’m going to lay this blame at World of Warcraft’s feet, but not because of their “dumbing down” of their content that allows a player to solo to the cap. No, the real problem is their carrot of loot loot and more loot, and the rise of achievement culture.

What WoW has done is to put two opposite situations into the same game. On one hand, we have the personal goal. On the other hand, we have the “multiplayer” aspect. The personal goal will drive players to selfishly work for their own betterment; the multiplayer is present because it’s part of the name of the genre, and little else.

“But wait, jerk,” you say. “You can’t run dungeons or raid alone! The game is designed for you to need people.” True statement, you gorgeous reader, you. But players work really hard at not having to actually play with people while playing with people, through guides. A guide tells a single person where to stand and where not to stand, what abilities to use, and when, and they’re based on roles people have chosen through their selection of their class. This is why the Holy Trinity works: it’s “guide-able” to the nth degree, removing the need for people to put thought into their group time.

Usually when people bemoan the death of multiplayer aspects they’re comparing what we see now to what we saw ten years ago when EverQuest was the top dog. During those days, people hadn’t yet gotten it in their heads that if one person wrote a set of instructions, everyone could just auto-pilot their way through the experience without so much as a kind word. To hear old guard EQ players tell it, the whole point of playing was to socialize, not to rage against your similarly mute party members when another person gets the loot drop you were hoping for. In essence, it used to be about socializing, and now it’s just about working for your own benefit by minimizing the risk.

Risk versus reward. That’s what you’ll hear people claim when they talk about the evils of P2W cash shops. If you can just buy what someone else has earned, that takes the sheen off of the achievement of those who “earned it”. But the achievement isn’t much of an achievement when all one has to do to earn it is to paint by numbers. Part of the joy of success comes after the trials of failure, and since guides ensure that failure is reduced as much as humanly possible, any feelings of success are disingenuous at best. You can’t really be proud that you’ve earned anything if you memorized a guide to do it.

And bringing it back around, the reason why people memorize guides isn’t entirely to remove failure; it’s also to make sure they don’t get yelled at, which is why the players themselves are responsible for the death of multiplayer aspects. There’s not an MMO player alive that’s escaped being called out for doing something or not doing something that some loudmouth expected them to do (or not do). If you know what’s expected of you — meaning which keys to press, and when — then you’re going to escape retribution. But mess up, and suddenly you’re the sole reason people in the party didn’t succeed. It doesn’t pay to ignore the guides and achieve through trial and error any more, so folks rely on guides now both out of fear of being the weak link, and to maximize success for themselves. You have a better chance at success if everyone performs according to plan, so it pays for everyone to know the dance before they step onto the floor.

MMOs have become slot machines, when what people claim to want is a poker tournament.

The answer is, of course, really simple: Don’t use guides. Don’t demand that people use them. Take the time and learn something for yourself. Embrace failure. Be ready to fail, and be willing to learn from it. From there, communicate. You’ll need to if you want to get past the first room because while you’ve gleaned knowledge from one point of view, someone else will have learned another part of the puzzle. Put them together under your very own powers — and not those of some random internet author — and I bet it’ll cure what ails the community.

Outside, Looking In #PAXEast2015

Today marks the beginning of PAX East 2015, which sucks on multiple levels.

The first being that it’s bitterly cold outside. Two years prior, we stood outside in the BCAC waiting to get into the building, and it was cold. But that could be considered a heat-wave compared to what we’ve got going on for this weekend in New England. I’d be all like “Welcome to the North East, bitches!”, but I suspect a lot of attendees hail from the East anyway, and it’s not been a picnic for anyone on the Right Coast this year. #Solidarity

The second is that we’re not attending the full weekend this year, just Sunday — the benefits of living local. It’s the first year we’ve not gone for the whole show. First year we made the mistake of booking the hotel for Friday through Sunday for four people. We were bumped to an overflow hotel in favor of those who had booked Thursday through Sunday. After that, we’ve been taking Thursday evening to get installed into the hotel, and it’s been great.

Our group opted to go to Quebec for the Winter Carnival this year (WHY, GAWD, WHY!?) so the idea of spending money to attend PAX was kind of taken off the table. Plus, last year was kind of “meh”. As the years went on, we found we were spending less and less time enraptured with the whole “con experience”: see as much as we could; do as much as we could; all for as long as we could. Last year saw us leaving the convention center in the later afternoon, ordering sushi takeout for the hotel, and playing Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game for the rest of the night.

But now that the event — “our PAX” — is starting up (people are lining up right now, in fact) and I’m seeing the Tweets, it’s kind of surreal in a way. Of course there’s a lot of events that people talk about online that I just kind of notice and then pass over, but I know this event. It’s my event. I’ve been a part of it as a participant for as long as it’s been happening in Boston, and this year when I’m not…it’s weird. Like an out of body experience.

I suppose that’s actually a good thing, since last year I was seriously questioning whether or not I would even want to go back; I know now that yeah, I do. I don’t know that it’s for a particular love of the community (I’ve kind of let that ship sail to it’s own doomed end), but there’s not a lot of conventions like this around here that speak to me and my culture, so I feel that I’m too disconnected from a part of my identity by not going. This all just means that next year we should be recharged and ready to get back into the swing of things after this year’s vacation.

Better, But Not Good Enough

A lot of my topics lately seem to bridge the gap between my childhood and my current adulthood, which I’m going to pin on two things. The first being my years of reflection on how where I was brought me to where I am. The second is because of my daughter.

Through no official railroading, my daughter is very much my daughter. In most ways, she’s far more like me than she’ll ever be like her mother, which I’m sure is sad for my wife, but is a joyful thing for me. Oddly enough, I always knew that if I did have any children, there would be only one, and it would be a girl; like, “steadfast resolution” knowing, not just a vague feeling that 50% of the results happen 100% of the time. And in this knowledge I knew she’d be like me, but better. I’d be able to help her to enjoy the things I enjoyed (if she chose to), but also to be a better person than I was, and better than the people who were around me. She would have my hindsight on her side, so I could help her learn from my experiences and my mistakes. What I didn’t count on, though, was that most of anyone’s life experiences are outside of their control.

Last night, my daughter and I got to talking about her interest in animation, and how she wasn’t “getting” the 2D animation software we bought her. She felt that she had a better grip on 3D animation concepts, so I showed her some of the stuff I had in Unity (which I knew where to find, not what limited knowledge I had about the subject). We got to talking about anime and her drawing, writing, and her text-messaging role-playing with her friends when I suggested she try an actual role playing game with them, since they were basically doing that anyway but without any formal rules.

“I don’t really have that many friends, though,” she said. I told her that she’d named more than enough people to put together a party, but understood instantly that that wasn’t what she meant. It was greater than that.

My daughter isn’t a crowd follower, which is something all parents say when they want people to think that their kids stand out. My daughter doesn’t stand out. She hangs back. Her talents are hers and no one else’s; it takes days of cajoling and tempered feedback to get her to show us, her family, any of her work. She said last night that she’d like to try acting in a school play or something, but felt too overwhelmed by her stage fright. She has good friends, like I did, but isn’t popular. As far as I know, however, she’s not bullied. She admits that while she’s not close to a lot of people, she’s at least friendly with them, and they to her.

I suggested that maybe when she goes to high school next year she could see if they have a role playing game club or something. Maybe if they didn’t, she could start one. She liked the idea, but then I realized something this morning: life in the geek-o-sphere isn’t really improving like I had hoped and assumed it would.

My thought was that most troubles experienced by a society occur as the vanguard makes its way into the mindset. People don’t like change, and resistance can be ugly as people vehemently fight back and forth to gain ground for their cause. Over time, though, as the ideas remain present — through contested — newer generations become used to them, and more accepting of them. Eventually, if we’re lucky, those ideas become so commonplace that we think of the time when they were railed against as “backward”.

So I had thought that because of the sheer momentum of geek culture rising from a niche community to a multi-billion-dollar worldwide juggernaut in a relatively short amount of time, the crap I had to deal with as a kid, and the crap we are dealing with now as adults, would fall away as our children are raised in a world where geek culture is so pervasive that they wouldn’t know any different. Liking video games, role playing games, cosplay, anime, comic books, or other affectations would just be something that one does, like watching movies, riding a bike, or eating spaghetti — age, gender, racially neutral activities that we don’t think of as being the domain of any one demographic. In addition, I’d hoped that geek parents raising geek children would help guide them so that while we probably won’t see equality in the community in this generation, the next generation would be on surer footing.

I don’t know now if that will be the case. After suggesting that my daughter look into a role playing club in high school, I had a small panic attack. Was that too geeky for high school culture? Was I suggesting my daughter bury herself deeper in this culture that was financially mainstream, but not entirely culturally mainstream during her most important years of social growth? How would she feel if there was a club, and she walked in and was the only girl there? How would she be treated? Would she stay and stick it out, or would she simply not return with her interest dashed? I didn’t have faith in my predictions any more, and I realize that’s both because of my experiences at that age, in a different time, but also because I don’t know that the next generation has bothered to improve.

When brushing my teeth this morning, I thought about it. Watching a lot of Cartoon Network, I sometimes see commercials for GameFly, the video game mail order rental service. On occasion I thought, “Why do they just show kids? Don’t they know the demographic majority of gamers are older?” Of course, it’s a commercial aimed at the network’s primary (on paper) demographic, so I can’t get too upset. But today I realized something far worse: all of the kids in those commercials are boys. Targeting kids I can now understand, on the Cartoon Network, but GameFly can’t even bother to represent the real demographic composition of the community. Are they lazy, ignorant, or are we working harder at being both than we are at making sure our kids grow up with a better experience than we did?

We can only take these things one day at a time. I offered to run a simple, custom RPG game system adventure just between my daughter and me so she could get an idea for how it feels to play these kinds of games. We also talked about her previous class in 3D design, her upcoming Unity class, and her 3D modeling class at Harvard this summer (yes, I am name-dropping so I can say “my daughter is going to Harvard”). She’s excited about the fact that the high school offers a 3D modeling course for a semester, and wondered if there was a club at the school for that as well. I didn’t have to suggest that if not, she could try and start one, because I could see her thinking about that very thing.

Return of Dragonman; Weird Dreams

Return of Dragonman

Normally I’d recount the whole D&D session from last night, except that it was relatively uneventful.

The party moved into the next cavern, where they found three berserkers (“…beserkers…”) and the dwarf’s old friend Langdedrosa Cyanwrath. The half-dragon was pleased to see Gina and wanted a re-match, so he instructed the berserkers to leave her to him.

Over the course of the battle, the dwarf and the monk were downed, but got back due to some long-distance healing efforts by the bard and and druid. The beserkers were tough customers, but ended up falling to the party’s strength. Cyanwrath, however, was too amused by the dwarf’s resilience, and opted to extend their rivalry through to another day, and he walked out of the cavern while the party dealt with is henchmen.

Weird Dreams

This is really just a place to record this for posterity, because I had a really unusual dream last night that I found amusing.

As far back as I can remember, I was at my aunt’s old apartment where she lived when I was a kid, and there were a bunch of people there — including a small dog that was really a demon who wanted to “bite a chunk of flesh out of [my] ass so I would bleed to death”. The dog was actually about the size of a cat.

At some point, I was outside in a neighborhood with…someone else…and the dog, who took to following me around and reminding me that he was out to kill me in the most ineffective ways possible. It wasn’t a priority, apparently, because he just followed me around.

The neighborhood was old, and reminded me of the old city of Quebec, with it’s narrow streets and tall stone buildings. I saw my father driving in the opposite direction one street over, and figured I’d best get home, but I didn’t know the way, so I…

…at some point I ended up in a kind of underground tunnel system. I had a map, but it was a gold cylinder about the size of a standard TV remote control. I had to find where I was, and then I had to rotate the cylinder around to follow the lines which represented the corridors. At a “T” intersection, taking the left path would lead to a dead end, so I took the right path…

…which lead to a horse ranch. Not like out west, but like the ones we have here in New England. It was sunny, and the ranch was a bunch of fields ringed by wooden post fences. I ended up at one end of a crude stable which was little more than bays for horses with a roof over it. I had to traverse the stable lengthwise, moving through these bays that were filled with farm equipment and — of course — horse crap. Lots of horse crap.

At the end, the stable opened up to a kind of drive through-sized opening beneath the roof. On the right was a wide open field. On the left was a woman who was working with a horse in another field. For some reason, I knew I should sneak around and not be seen, but in that open area under the roof was a pony, and the pony saw me.

This was less of a pony and more like a dog (the demon dog had since moved on to something else, and was no longer with me). He wanted to jump up and play, but I was concerned he’d give away my presence. I ducked down behind some barrels near the right side of the stable just as the woman in the field noticed the pony acting strangely.

Sure enough, she came over to investigate, and there was really nowhere for me to go. I told her I was trying to get to Nashua, that my map had led me through the horse farm, and that I had gotten lost. She didn’t seem concerned or angry, just…

…and that’s when I woke up. I have no idea what the hell I ate last night to cause this kind of a dream.