Culture And the Hell of Suburbia

I live smack in the middle of what you can easily call “suburbia”. I’ve got a nice house, nice lawn, nice garage, and so do my neighbors. We are one neighborhood among many, all sprouting from central arteries like branches from the trunk of a tree. These trunks are planted haphazardly, and somewhere in the rough center of this copse is our meager garden of goods and services. We have two grocery stores, less than ten sit-down restaurants, a handful of “fast food” places, and a shit-ton of auto-care specialists.

Which makes sense, because when you live in the suburbs, you need your car. Nothing is within walking distance. To get to the nearest grocery store, I have to drive maybe ten minutes (with all of the traffic lights, or twists and turns if I opt to take the “back roads”). If I want to go to the better grocery store, I’m looking at a fifteen to twenty minute drive — one way.

The suburbs is where America went to get away from it all, and by all I mean the city. The city is where shit happens, literally and figuratively. As Rush (the band, not the asshole) put it, “the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dream of youth”, or of anyone who wants to have a life outside of mowing the lawn and relaxing in a hammock every weekend. If you want to visit museums, or dine at the trendy restaurants, or shop at the hottest stores, or go to the most popular bars, you need to be in the city. OK, so the suburbs might have the occasional privately owned restaurant, and I guess the basement of the American Legion Hall counts as a “bar”, but…

The idea behind the suburbs, though, was that affluence meant never having to rent an apartment, deal with crime, or walk anywhere. With cars, people could still travel into the city, get their fill of culture, and then high-tail it back to their safe neighborhoods before dark. Suburbs aren’t supposed to have their own cultural centers because it’s not what people wanted: nice houses, nice lawns, nice garages.

Nashua-29

Downtown Nashua, NH. Yes, that’s a tattoo place. We’re not SAVAGES, for crying out loud.

I grew up in a city called Nashua, which is not far from where I live now. Nashua is a “city” like Pluto is a “planet”. Nashua has a downtown — complete with a Main Street — which has shops and restaurants and on the south side you have a fully realized retail arcology jam-packed with chain stores and restaurants, and capped at the Massachusetts border by what used to be the largest mall in the area. Outside of those zones is pure residential, interspersed with the occasional corner store, office building, or home-based business.

This past weekend, I went down to Boston for the day. I detest cities…actually, I detest driving in cities. Once I’m there I’m more or less OK. Thankfully Boston has public transport, which means never having to drive anywhere except to the outskirts where we can pick up the subway. We spent our time along Bolyston and Newbury streets, which are two major thoroughfares through the city. Newbury street in particular was packed, since it’s a long street which is hemmed in by shops occupying multi-decker brownstones. For every narrow building, you get three shops, and there are hundreds of buildings along this road. If you want it, you can probably find it on Newbury street (and we were there because my daughter wanted to go to an anime shop that we had been to before. An anime shop, for crissakes!)

We can’t get this kind of thing at home, and that kinda sucks. I’ve been seeing people on social media posting about different locations near them that I think I would like to visit if there were similar establishments near me. One was a boutique doughnut bakery. The other was a combination bar/game store. Now, I’ve not been everywhere in New Hampshire, nor have I been everywhere here in Southern New Hampshire, but I’m pretty sure there’s no bar/game store within reasonable driving distance of where I live. We have FLGS — friendly local gaming stores — but I often find it hard to drive there when I can order something from Amazon and have it drive to me. Suburbs for the win, I guess?

Cultural-desert-...-an-oi-007

Heat-map of cultural attractions in southern NH

I started thinking why this was. What is it about this town, this area, this region, or this state that no one has either thought of, or has been denied the opportunity to, open similar establishments? One logical answer is that no one has, in fact, thought of it. But, show of hands: who among the geeks reading this (if anyone) hasn’t thought about a public place where geeks and family can hang out, maybe get something to eat, and play or buy a game? How about a themed bar? We’re drowning in sports-themed bars up here, and some (oh gawd why) nautical themed establishments, but that’s about it. Everything else is either kid oriented, or is straining the limits of credibility in trying to pass themselves off as a culturally relevant establishment for discerning adults. I can’t believe that I’m the only person in a 100 mile radius who would love to have something like this.

"Ohhh....who dines in a shithole under the sea?"

“Ohhh….who dines in a shithole under the sea?”

A second possible answer is just apathy. Southern NH is an ultra bedroom community. We’re also in the center of New England. As much as I’d like to dispel the stereotype of NEer’s being rather…insular, I can’t. We just don’t care to talk to one another, and we’re all pretty much wrapped up in our own fiefdoms to give a shit about anyone else — unless someone else is encroaching on what we consider to be “ours”: our land, our views of the sky, our right to stuff 500 holiday-themed lawn ornaments onto our lawn from October to August. I’d be willing to bet that the few non-chain restaurants we have in our sphere were started by people not from this area. Everyone else is pretty much content with the basics, which would explain why we have chain-everything coming out our ears. We seem to be OK with “good enough”, but not culturally aware to the level where we demand better. We’ll take it if someone wants to offer it to us, but going out of our way to make something happen that exceeds that bare minimum? Nope.

"I know I should care, but I just don't care."

“I know I should care, but I just don’t care enough to care.”

A third possible answer — and one that I think kind of overshadows the others, but doesn’t preclude them — is that this is a state of cranky-ass old people. When I was growing up, I knew a lot of kids who were always itching to “get out”. Mind you, we’re not farm country; Nashua, Manchester, Concord, and Portsmouth combined can offer people a lot of things to do, if you have a car and the time to travel. But as teenagers a lot of those places are still out of reach. People always hated being in NH and thought that being elsewhere — anywhere — was a better deal. Now that I’m older I can see how the sausage is made, and the people making decisions here in NH aren’t at all interested in focusing on the needs or wants of the very people they worry about losing. NH is aging, which means that those who stay here are increasingly worried about themselves and their own amenities, even to the exclusion of consideration of amenities that could reverse the aging population trend. I used to live in a town called Hillsboro, which was at the foot of our mountain country, and their downtown was decrepit. Buildings with peeling paint, abandoned buildings, you name it. There were two restaurants, one Burger King, two pissant little grocery stores, and a gas station. But there were several buildings that…I can’t even remember if they were occupied. It had a lot of potential though. It was the perfect town to have attracted a class of people who wanted to be in between the outdoor activities of the North Country, and the “civilization” of the southern tier of the state, if only they could dress up the town to make it somewhat attractive to that young, affluent, active kind of people. But nope, the town council wanted nothing to do with those kinds of ideas. Their downtown was “historic”, and they’d rather see it rot with history than do anything that they felt might bury the past for a shot at the future.

Cad Nelson, now in his 332nd year on the Town Council

Cad Nelson, now in his 332nd year on the Town Council

So I suppose the end result is “why not do it yourself?” Thanks, peanut-gallery. I’ve thought about it. Hell, my wife has thought about it, but there’s a few things in the way. The first is that I’m not a risk taker, especially when it comes to my livelihood. If our circumstances allowed us to continue living in the manner to which we have become accustomed on only one income (although my wife does make more than I do), then OK, maybe. But we’ve got a mortgage, a car payment, and a kid going to college in — CHRIST! — four years. Second of all, I’ve got zero experience in running a business. I’d like to make this establishment a cool bar, maybe? What do I know about that? I’ve worked hard to avoid going to bars, and I’ve gotten good at it, which means I’d be horrible at running one. Maybe I could make it something lower key, like a coffee-shop-slash-game-room, but what kind of clients would I attract at that point? Third of all, I’m still stuck on the reasons why it hasn’t been done yet: apathy, and cranky-ass gatekeepers. We’d need to find a location that was accessible to the most people, and somewhere between Nashua and Manchester could work, if we were off the highway. There’s not too many places like that around here. Then we’d have to convince the Powers That Be that we’re not a bunch of hooligans who would be breaking windows and blasting loud music when they were trying to sleep at two in the afternoon (the default stance on anything they don’t understand). They might ask for “good of the community” stats, which means I’d have to put that apathy element to the test: see if I could poll the entire southern part of the state in order to see if anyone would even show up if a geek-themed establishment were to open. I mean, I think we could get enough people, but enough people to stay open for a few years? More than a few years? Not if young people are fleeing a state that’s under the tyrannical fist of the elderly*, and I don’t think I’d want to open something like this just to see if filled up with loitering teens who are…holy crap I’m turning into one of those cranky-ass gatekeepers.

Finally, I worry that it has been tried, but has failed so spectacularly that it was wiped from the memories of everyone who’s lived, past, present, and future.

In the end, I’m not sure a supporting culture does or even can exist in this area. I’ve been to some of the FLGS and I’ve seen some of the people there; I’d like to attract those kinds of people, because they are like me in so many ways. I don’t want it to be neutered by caveats applied by know-nothings who require conformation to the “spirit” of the town, nor do I want it to be a place where parents dump their kids during Summer vacation. I’ve got no experience, and am rather risk-averse, which leaves me with one option: wonder why no one else has done it, and wonder if anyone ever will.

 

 

* I’m 41, and since I’m considering this situation means that it’s not just Millennials and younger that would be attracted to an establishment like this, but there’s always that shadow of the career small-town politicians who kowtow to people who’d rather waste away in silence than to allow someone to change The Way Things Have Been Done.

Off The Beaten Trail

I don’t know if I like the title of this post. It’s the first thing that popped into my head when I looked at this picture I took from my time in Wildstar last night.

The hookah-smoking splorg

I found this guy (and another “Alice in Wonderland” reference in the next room) because as an Explorer, I was on top of a waterfall looking for the last element of a scavenger hunt. In that process, I noticed some mushrooms outside of a tiny cave, and when I activated the mushroom, I was shrunk to a size that allowed me to scoot into the cavern, where this guy apparently still thought it was 4/20.

This is where MMOs tend to really shine, with the inclusion of these “off the beaten trail” perks that you find only when you’re not so head-down and rushing to the end game. While relatively inconsequential to progress (I scored an achievement, and some housing items in the cave), someone on the design team thought that this would be a cool thing to include in the game…but only if someone happened to be at the right place to find it. Why would someone be at the right place, especially if they hadn’t started on the scavenger hunt? Normally I can’t see any other reason except for someone seeing the waterfall and it’s levels of plateaus and wondering if there was anything worthwhile up there. Which there was.

Adventure Co. Is Hiring!

Our D&D 5E group has encountered some perpetual bad luck concerning the fifth member of the party. Our cleric got tired of the adventuring life and set up shop at the tavern (not a tavern owner; he just refuses to leave). His replacement, a druid, got permanently stuck in animal form, and was never heard from again (popular opinion was that he morphed into a rabbit, and is now in the possession of a little girl who refers to him as “Mr. Fluffybutt”).

That means that the Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company has been down by an adventurer for a few weeks now, and is interested in getting back up to full strength.

Do you have what it takes to stick it out for two, maybe three, Thursday night (9PM – 11PM EDT) online D&D 5E sessions via Roll20.net? How about for longer than just a few sessions? We seem to go through fifth members like Spinal Tap goes through drummers, and we’d really like to find a proper fit to fill the empty position.

If interested, you can leave a comment here, or ping @Scopique, @Tipadaknife, @Girl_Grey, @Bluekae, or @grilledcheese28 on Twitter.

About Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company

This is kind of a casual D&D group, if by “kind of” I mean “really, really”. We enjoy having fun with the process as much as we enjoy having fun playing the game, and that means that sometimes we can get a bit off track, or distracted by how much fun we’re having. We’re like our own laser pointers to our own spirit-cats. We’re not rules lawyers, preferring to put the enjoyment of the game ahead of coloring inside the lines as “The Man” taught us to do in kindergarten. Sometimes it feels like kindergarten, but that’s all part of the fun. We’re also don’t make hardcore demands: RP in first person, third person, lizard-person, potted plant, or watercolor painting, if that’s your thing. Or not at all!

Currently, we’re plowing through the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module, and all players are level 4. We currently have a monk, a ranger, a fighter, and a bard. There are no restrictions to what class you could bring to the party, although we’re only prep’d via the Player Handbook.

 

A River Cruise

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on the Adventure Co. Brand Adventure Company, so let’s see what they’ve been up to, shall we?

/slowdisolve

Frume, the Torm Paladin, has tasked the party with intercepting the dragon cult’s caravan ‘o riches before it leaves Baldur’s Gate. The quickest way to get to the city from Elturel is by river transport, and Frume has thoughtfully booked the party on a vessel that’s headed in that direction.

The Serpent’s Tail is a large, river-going “luxury entertainment yacht” which carries well-to-do citizens between Scornubel and Baldur’s Gate, and was the only passage available that would get the players down-river ahead of the cultists. Frume advised the party to get themselves some fancy duds, because the patrons of The Serpent’s Tail aren’t the kind to rub elbows with rough and tumble adventurers.

The boat/barge/testament to excess sported an open-air atrium (complete with four piece musical ensemble to greet the passengers as they embark), a lavishly appointed ballroom, a sumptuous dining room able to accommodate up to 60 guests, and a casino featuring the hottest gambling action this side of Luskan. The players, dolled up in their finest frippery, slipped on board with nary a sidelong glance that wasn’t judging their level of wealth and refinement. The bard, ever the performer, decided that she would take on the role of a Princess of Stripscrew Caverns, and pushed her way to the front of the gangplank to announce her presence to the halfling captain and her human first mate. She attempted to rope the monk into playing the role of her valet, but he constantly played the part of “I have no idea who this woman is” instead.

Once the cruise got underway, the party split up. The ranger kept himself out in the open, preferring the sky to the lavish canopies afforded by the yacht as he eavesdropped on passenger conversation for cultist plots. The monk took a nap. The bard visited the ballroom and warmed up with the orchestra who were preparing for the night’s festivities. The dwarf, however, ran into a bit of a situation at the casino (the dining room wasn’t yet serving lunch, so the casino was her second choice).

The casino was guarded by two bouncers who were asking all patrons “are you currently carrying any weapons?” as they entered the room. The dwarf was, of course, armed, having stashed her throwing axes in her beard. Unfortunately when it came time for her to answer the question, she couldn’t. Her throat seized up, and she was unable to assure the men that no, she was not armed. Realizing that the doorways were guarded by wards of truth, she had no choice but to return to her cabin, stow her weapons, and return once again.

At lunch time, the bard and the monk were first in line for a table. Eager to sample the delicacies that Frume’s passage had bought them, they plowed through the food in relative silence, only tossing their leftovers onto the floor three times as the horrified gentry looked on. Feeling a bit famished himself, the ranger came inside just in time for the main course.

The dwarf, having suffered through a curiously unlucky streak at the “D&D-equivalent-of-Craps” table, was feeling down on her luck and contemplating lunch when she glanced up and across the room. There was someone that she thought she recognized. It couldn’t be, could it? What would be the odds?

Stealthily, she wound her way through the crowd until she was absolutely sure: here was her longtime love, a dwarven prince, Ruret Ironstone, heir to the Ironstone Clan — a family that was engaged in a blood feud with her own. She couldn’t just walk up and introduce herself; his parents were also present, and the last time she had run across Ruret’s father, Delg Ironstone, he had threatened to throw her into a chasm, straight down to the Underdark. He had done it before to dwarves who had displeased him less than those who bear the name Battlehammer. She needed a plan.

Running to the dining room, she roped the monk into crafting a note: “Meet me on the aft deck tonight”, and then signed her name. She was adamant that Ruret know it was her, and not some random dwarven floozy who shaves her beard. The monk returned to the casino with the dwarf, where he not-so-suavely walked up and handed the note to Ruret.

Delg, surprised by the appearance of a gnome in what looked to be a formal bathrobe, snatched the note from his son’s hand and read it. Delg instantly comprehended the message, and his face grew red and twisted in rage. Both the dwarf and the monk beat a hasty retreat: the dwarf for fear of her life, the monk for fear of missing dessert.

*   *   *

The HotDQ module only mentions the river trip in passing, saying that it’s the quickest way down-river to Baldur’s Gate, but since it was presented as a throw-away scenario, I figured that this might be a better time to inject some custom content. Last time I had tried, the group was still getting used to getting back into the swing of tabletop gaming, and had pretty much torpedoed my side-adventure. This time, I figured we were all a bit wiser, more relaxed, and prepared for some relatively light-hearted content.

A simple boat ride down the river on a ferry (as the module suggests) could have been “ok”, but at some point I got it stuck in my mind that this should be a riverboat casino, like the stereotype of the steam paddle boats that plied the Mississippi River in the 1800’s. Putting the party amid a different class of character (socially and financially, not adventure-wise) might lend itself to some interesting hijinks as they attempt to fit in, but everyone seemed to take the concept naturally enough to fit in undetected.

I had a few “happenings” planned out that could be used during the three day trip. I had built the dwarf’s scenario from her chosen Background which stated that she was in love with someone whose family hated her family, and thought that this would be an interesting situation: trapped on a boat, the dwarf would be trying to hook up with her love while also trying to avoid the wrath of his family. Unfortunately for her, her compatriot was more interested in the dessert than in helping her out.

The Big Deal of this session was that it was all RP. There was no combat. The truth-wards on the doorways are there to ensure that everyone has a safe and pleasant trip. All of the rooms are fitted with Antimagic Field crystals which prevent the use of magic (especially in the casino). Since the next several sections of the module will require the party to do more talking than fighting, having a relatively low-consequence “RP re-education” session for all of us was probably a good idea.

I should have been doing this on previous posts, but after the session I thought I should include a footnote for the “joke of the night“, since we seem to have a new one every time we play. This week was the “single use monocle“, which can be used specifically to pop out incredulously, and then disposed off and replaced from a spare kept in one’s wallet.

Fantasy Grounds And Dungeons & Dragons

I’m sure folks are pretty sick of my going on about this, but I realized I didn’t have a long form explanation as to why I’m so excited about the partnership between Wizards of the Coast and SmiteWorks.

WOTC5EPHBDELUXEI’ve owned Fantasy Grounds for many years, and it was many years before I was actually able to use it. What sold me on FG over other virtual tabletop apps was that you could write your own modules within FG and benefit from having everything you need for the adventure right there in that app. All story elements, all notes, all NPCs and maps were just a drag and drop away. Being a vtable meant that a lot of the mechanics were handled by the application itself, which means that you don’t need to hunt for info about how much damage a sword does; you just press a button and the damage is taken care of.

While FG was good for home-brew modules, what it couldn’t WOTC5ELMOP2provide was a sanctioned core materials. This put the onus of translating something like “Keep on the Borderlands” entirely on you. You’d need to copy over each and every stat block by hand (or if you’re technically inclined, use one of the parsers that were written by hyper-intelligent FG users to scrap the D&D Insider website or PDF). Some companies, such as Paizo and Chaosium licensed products/names like Pathfinder or Call of Cthulhu which included core rules, tables, and other awesome stuff, but Wizards has always been conspicuously absent. WotC didn’t license 4E, which I suspect had a lot to do with whatever experience they had with 3.5, and a possibly bad experience with their early attempts to get into the digital space with 4E (PDF piracy, a failed virtual tabletop of their own, etc).

That’s why I’m so excited about seeing WotC jumping back into digital with D&D, and for choosing FG as their first partner*. It makes a lot of sense, since FG has dozens upon dozens of systems and adventure modules available through their store or through third party sites like Drive Thru RPG. FG is a complete system — tabletop, adventure modules, reference system, character manager, and game-play aide. The only think FG doesn’t do** is provide voice chat, so while it’s not a complete solution for bringing together disparate players, it at least brings everyone 4/5 of the way there.

 

* There was that initial partnership with a company that was making a tabletop companion app for tablets that suddenly went belly-up. The rumor that I heard was that those developers wanted to make the app a supplement to live games, while WotC wanted an entirely on-line tool that allowed people to play remotely. If that’s true, it’s a marked change from the 4E days when WotC tried to make their own vtable, failed, and allowed it to flounder in limbo until they announced that it was dead. In this case, it sounds like they wanted something, didn’t find it with their current partner, and opted to seek out one that was already aligned with what they wanted to accomplish.

** Fantasy Grounds is currently in the midst of a re-write. While I think the current application is 100% spiffy, it’s current incarnation more or less stretches back several years. FG developers have mentioned that they’re re-building the app from the ground up using Unity, so hopefully they’ll consider integrating at least voice chat, if not voice and video.

Something Simple

The other day I was comparing the notes I store in OneNote to the notes I had stored in Evernote when I was a heavy Evernote user, and in the process I unearthed a frightening amount of design documents I had put together for a project that I called MetaPunk.

MetaPunk was supposed to be a cyberpunk RPG built with MetaPlace, Raph Koster’s online game-slash-virtual-world construction system. I was a heavy user of the alpha/beta at the time (disclosure: heavy enough that they flew me and several other users out to San Diego to meet the team), and I really wanted to use the system to create this cyberpunk RPG. But it came to pass that my ambition exceeded my ability — no, really! — and I didn’t get very far before MetaPlace shut down.

But the dream lived on! My next plan was to make it a web game, but not in the same form as it would have appeared in using MetaPlace. This was to be more of a static affair, a kind of stateless “BBS door game” async multiplayer affair. I had created a tool that allowed me to upload an image, and then to drag regions on the image to build a map so users could click on the map to indicate where they wanted to travel to. Things would happen. And stuff. But after a time I got distracted — no, really! — and everything was archived and put away.

Fast forward four years to when I re-discovered my notes from this web-version of MetaPunk. I can’t remember where I put the archived code for the work I had done on the web version, but I’m not sure that it’s relevant now. Now I have a hammer — Unity, of course — and these design documents look suspiciously like a nail. I had done a lot of work coming up with systems and explanations and data structures that there’s enough there to get coding something.

But, this post is entitled “Something Simple”, which isn’t the image that the words “cyberpunk RPG in Unity” conjurers. I’m not thinking of a third, first, or isometric person game; I’m still thinking of keeping it close to the design of the web version. That would make it a “Choose Your Own Adventure on steroids” kind of thing: you’d be working to further your agendas, but with a less “active” interface. A cursory consideration leads me to believe that I could do the whole thing just by using UI elements in 2D, although I’d have to test that. At my most ambitious, we’d be looking at something with a 3D map of the city, with…other stuff. I don’t know. That idea just came to me as I was writing this.

So throw this log on my unfinished project pile. I’ll do some exploration to see what I can reasonably pull off, especially since some of the background work has been written down and previously tested. As always, no promises.

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.

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.