Revelation

Roger wasn’t much for animals. They didn’t like him and he didn’t like them. Every dog he’d ever tried to pet had either run or bit him. Cats clawed him and even birds pecked him.

Which is how he knew something was wrong when he woke up with a mouse sitting on his nightstand.

“Go away” he said. It didn’t move.

“Scram.” Roger sat up and waved at it. It washed its whiskers.

Roger eyed the clock and then looked out the window. It was past eight but still dark out. Odd. Roger watched the mouse carefully as he stayed outside arm’s reach of the mouse while getting up.

He grabbed his things and headed to the shower without taking his eyes off the creature until he left his bedroom. Stayed facing him the entire time.

When he came back, it was still there. He combed his hair in silence, still watching the mouse that moved only to rub its whiskers.

When he couldn’t take it any longer, Roger stepped forward, grabbing a book off his shelf. “Get out of here now or I’m going to smash you!”

The mouse paused for a moment, and then resumed rubbing its little face.

Roger moved to the bed, put the book down, and picked up a pen. When he poked the mouse, it squeaked and then continued washing its whiskers.

Roger bent over to look at it and whispered half to himself. “What the hell are you doing, little guy?”

“Distracting you” said a small voice behind him. By the time he started to spin around, the horde of mice was crashing over him.

The last thing he heard as darkness swallowed him was a small voice saying “At last, the prophesied hero has fallen. Soon, so will all the other Humans.”

One Small Step at a Time

Once again, the world has changed in the space of a week. This time last week, I was worried about how I could share my experiences about being home schooled when I still couldn’t separate what was a result of the learning environment and what was a result of the emotional neglect and abuse. Since then I wrote that post, I’ve learned my employer might be forced to close due to the COVID-19 lockdown in the state of Wisconsin, learned my company was deemed essential due to a variety of reasons (though a lot of it has to do with us stepping into the medical face-shield business to help meet demands), settled into remote work life, learned my employer was going to be reducing everyone to 50% hours (alternating weeks to keep as few people in contact as possible), been told the factory was closing for two weeks due to an outbreak at the factory, and then was informed that we remote workers would still be working our 50% schedules despite the factory closure.

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The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

Most of the time, I don’t play D&D. I run it. There’s a pretty big difference. As a DM, running D&D requires an understanding of the style of game you’re playing, a hefty knowledge of the world you’re playing in, a grasp on at least the core concepts of the rules (though an encyclopedic knowledge of them is frequently very helpful), and at least several reference documents because there is no way you’ll know everything you need to know off the top of your head.

It’s a numbers game with lots of narration and storytelling that requires you to set aside your ego so you can provide opportunities for your players to explore the world, tell a story, and try things. Generally, you want to avoid a focus on “winning” as the DM and instead focus on making sure everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of social management since it is frequently up to the DM to intercede in arguments or interpret rules that don’t necessarily have a clear answer to the question the player is asking, all of which requires a certain amount of social consciousness as the DM. You need to watch your players so you can be ready to support them as they need it and challenge them as they want it. When you DM a lot like I do, it can be easy to think of playing as something that is incredibly easy.

When you get a chance to play though, and really get into it, your perspective shifts. Suddenly, you’re not thinking about managing numbers, turn order, and a thousand tiny details but trying to manage your expectations. Instead of trying to anticipate the players, you’re trying to navigate the minefield that is a combat encounter. Especially at low levels, one wrong choice can make the difference between a simple fight and a fight that uses up all of your resources and abilities. Whenever you’re confronted with a door, there’s no way to know what is behind it and, if you’re the leader of your sorry bunch of misbegotten misbegots, it falls on your to decide if you should open that door or if you should take the safe route and find a place to hunker down until everyone’s hit points are full.

While the effort involved is vastly different, the toll isn’t. As a player, you don’t have to manage a thousand little details, but your character’s life hinges on the success or failure of your actions. As DM, you don’t need to emotionally invest in each decision because there’s no risk of failure for you in a combat encounter. Your job is to help tell a story and provide a challenge. As a player, making the decision to stand at the back of the group is fraught with danger. If, like my character was today, you’re at half hit points and facing a swarm of creatures that aren’t tough but could easily overwhelm you when there’s over ten of them to your single you, that decision isn’t an easy one.

You, the player, don’t want your character to die, but sometimes that’s what happens. Sometimes characters die because of the choices they make. And I say “they” because Chris Amann would not choose for Lyskarhir the Elven fighter to stay behind the group of villagers as they flee the church they’ve hidden inside, but Lyskarhir the Elven fighter certainly would, even if he’s a cantankerous asshole. They didn’t ask to have their town wrecked and their loved ones slaughtered in front of their eyes, and most of them aren’t up to the challenge of standing firm in the face of an oncoming hoard, but you are. So you stand and hope they get away quickly enough for you to get away instead so you don’t need to find out if you’re the kind of person who’d let someone else die instead of facing an attack you’d probably survive.

Chris Amann wouldn’t choose to keep Lyskarhir exposed to danger so that as many of the enemies focus on him instead of the fleeing villagers, but Lyskarhir sure would. He knows he can probably get away and, once the group splits, idly walk up behind them with his longbow out and kill them as they chase the defenseless townsfolk. Chris Amann knows Lyskarhir can do this and Lyskarhir’s battle strategies are only as good as Chris Amann’s strategies, so Chris Amann lets Lyskarhir decide what to do and does his best to fight the duality of his mind so that he (I) can properly roleplay.

As a DM, roleplaying is swapping masks to be whoever the players are talking to. If you’re really good at it like Matt Mercer, you can become entirely new people with every new character. If you’re just alright at it like I am, you can try to change the tone of your voice and at least make them use different words to help the players see the difference between the people they’re talking to. When you’re playing, you’re putting on a mask, a costume, and assuming an entirely new persona. You have to manage the difference between what you know (which, as a regular DM, I know EXACTLY how many hit points each monster we fought had) and what your character knows. Lyskarhir doesn’t know that kobolds have five hit points, but he does know that not a single one has survived being shot by him. Chris Amann knows that Ambush Drakes don’t deal much damage, but all Lyskarhir knows is that there is a pair of wolf-sized dragon-ish lizards running toward him at an alarming pace.

As much as I enjoy storytelling and being a Dungeon Master, I will never be as excited by a gameplay moment as I was when my Elven fighter survived four wild swings, three of which missed thanks to his excellent planning, that left him with one single hit point and the final attack he needed to take down the champion of the enemy forces. Even if the DM let me get away with 1 hp because I’d gotten lucky enough to reduce an enemy that should have wiped the floor with me to the single digits, it won’t change how great it felt to emerge victorious from a fight that went better than it had any right to.

Now, three hours after the fight concluded (which is when I’m writing this), I am still jittery and excited about that moment. I want more. I’m reminded of how much I love playing, of the highs and lows of tabletop gaming that you feel as a player who can only do their best in the given situation. I miss it. I wish I could get more of it. But it also feels pretty great to be reminded of the experiences I can provide to other people when I run games for them. I just hope I get to keep doing both as the world shifts and changes in the face of this pandemic.

Retreading Familiar Ground in Animal Crossing: New Horizons

The first and only Animal Crossing game I’ve ever played longer than a day (I borrowed one in college but didn’t have the time to do more than make a character) was the original one on the GameCube. That isn’t a result of a lack of willingness on my part so much as a result of my disconnect from buying new games during college (I think the only new game I got while I was in college was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword) and my lack of free time as a post-college adult. I’ve always had something come up that make a time-intensive and daily play game like Animal Crossing prohibitive.

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Breaking Protocol

“Thank you all for gathering on short notice.” Harry sat in his chair with the light of his monitor reflecting off his glasses. “I know these are hard times, but I’m glad we can still gather quickly as the need arises.”

Harry focused his eyes on his webcam, doing what that guide to video conferencing had told him to give the illusion of eye contact to the people on the call. It was tricky to maintain, but he’d had a lot of practice.

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Growing Up Home Schooled

I’ve been watching a lot of my older friends (and a few of my peers) on social media post about homeschooling and trying to figure out how to get their child to engage with at-home lessons during this pandemic. There are so many tools out there for them to use: websites to crowdsource lesson plans, video tools for teaching lessons to multiple people (crowdsourcing education or stuff schools have set up so teachers can have lessons with their students without anyone needing to leave home), websites with all kinds of neat learning tools, and so much more. Some people are even choosing to forego standard education and instead focus on life lessons like cooking, home maintenance, simple car repair, baking, and the sort of things that schools no longer teach children that are still essential life skills. It’s amazing watching the world shift before my eyes.

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Bringing Social Distancing to Your TTRPG

Planning your next Dungeons and Dragons session but unsure how the burgeoning pandemic will affect attendance? Wondering how much Purell you’ll need to clean all your dice after you roll them on the table? Unsure how to handle taking turns to bring the food when your increasing paranoia about getting sick has granted you the ability to see the germs wafting out of everyone’s mouths as they breathe?

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TAZ and The Words I Needed to Hear

“See, there’s magic in a bard song. They call it inspiration and it tells the listener what they need to hear right when they need to hear it.”

Those were the words I needed to hear right when I needed to hear them. I was sitting on my couch the night following my grandfather’s funeral, a year and twenty-seven days ago. I’d just gotten back from Chicago, unloaded the car, and then sat down on the couch to finish the podcast I’d started on my first of many drives down to Chicago in 2019 to visit my grandpa and help out my mom. I was alone–my roommates could tell I didn’t want to talk–and I put on the last two episodes of the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone.

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The Simple Life

Grady was a simple man. He liked to hike, he liked his wife, and he liked his work. He merely tolerated their kids. Everyone had assured him that he’d eventually like them when they became little people instead of pink blobs, but they’d been wrong. He could be occasionally persuaded to do activities adjacent to hiking, such as rock climbing or camping, and did his best to avoid everything else.

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Learning to Rest & Recover

In the past year, amongst all the other hard truths and difficult steps of my growth, I came face-to-face with the fact that I never learned how to recover since I spent almost my entire life coping. Specifically, due to the situation I grew up in and the life I was choosing for myself in my college years, I never learned to recover from things because I never had the time or opportunity to do more than cope.

I’m quite good at coping. Throw me into any difficult situation, any amount of stress, any environment, and I’ll make it work. I’ll get things done, achieve my goals, and manage to keep my sanity. Like a lot of people who grew up with stress and trauma as an everyday part of my life, I got so used to it that I feel uncomfortable without a constant high-level of stress so I tend to thrive when things get difficult. In the years since I graduated college, leaving behind the orderly environments and clear, outlined goals, I’ve discovered that there is an upper limit to how much I can handle. I don’t thrive under highly stressful situations so much as I never learned how to live comfortably in any other kind of situation.

What made it click this past year was talking with my roommate about how to organize his studying and classwork time. He’s a student now and he regularly struggles with staying focus on his work because he’s an extrovert and can be easily distracted by anyone even walking into the room he’s working in. He remarked that he gets frustrated because he wants to go do stuff with me and our other roommate, and I agreed that it is harder for him as a late-20s adult going to college when most of his friends have already graduated. He can’t connect and enjoy studying with his classmates because some of them are a decade younger than him, and he doesn’t have a group of friends to study with since we’re all playing video games or going out (I’ve offered to sit and write with him if he wants company while he works, but he has yet to take me up on it).

While we were talking about strategies to help him focus, I told him some anecdotes from my years in college and the lessons I learned. During my junior and senior years, when I figured out what I wanted to do and buckled down to work, I did homework or worked six nights of the week. Between classes, studying, and working full time, I got one night off a week, so I took Thursday nights off to play video games with my friends. Other than that, I ignored everyone or told them they could join me as I studied in the library or in the English Department lounge. I picked studying and work over everything else and counted on my friends to understand. Some of them did, some of them didn’t, but what mattered most to me was making the right choice for myself.

All that stuff tumbled around my head for a while before it finally connected with the final piece to the puzzle. One of the most important things I ever learned from a professor in college was a saying he liked (and still likes) to repeat to all of his classes. “I know some of you will say that you write your best papers at the last minute, as the deadline approaches. That isn’t true. What is true is that you only write your papers at the last minute.” It was a lesson I took to heart then and something that connected what I learned by choosing myself in college with what I’ve been learning from the books I’m reading about trauma (they’ll show up in a review sometime).

All of this made it clear that nothing had changed from college. I hadn’t become deficient in someway. I hadn’t lost anything. I just got worn out because I assumed that I thrived when under a great deal of stress instead of questioning if I had ever tried to live without that much stress. I’d gradually worn myself down because I could just keep coping until I was physically incapable of continuing. Even after I knew I wasn’t really fine, when I’d seen the cracks in the world I was building for myself and did my best to patch them, I still thought I could keep doing what I was doing and the changes I’d made to my world would eventually fix things. Turns out what I needed to change was me.

I still think I made the right choice back then to change jobs. I think that, overall, my world is much better than it was three years ago even as I’m currently breaking it all apart and building most of it back up again. I also think that what I really needed was to learn how to rest. How to recover. They sound so easy, right? The idea of resting is super easy until you try to explain it to someone, isn’t it? You grab for metaphor and simile, confident that the person you’re talking to understands it and you just have to find the right bridge to connect your understand and theirs. I didn’t really understand it. I thought I did. If you’d asked me even three months ago, I’d have explained that resting is like gasping for air after a sprint, taking the minute you have to get as much air into your lungs before you’re up and sprinting again. Recovery is the break you take during a marathon to stretch a cramped muscle, drink a sports drink/energy slurry, and use the bathroom before you carry on running.

I’m sure you can see the flaw in my understanding. Those are breaks. Reprieves. Moments of peace in a storm. Real rest and recovery are something else entirely. To be entirely fair to myself, it’s difficult to understand that you misunderstood something most people can’t explain and that most people take for granted. For instance, did you know that most old memories are typically viewed in third person, almost like a story you’ve told yourself (or that someone else has told you)? You don’t really see most old memories through your own eyes, you see yourself participating in them.

Until very recently, I thought that it was normal for all memories to be first person. Memories weren’t stories so much as resubmerging myself in a moment long past. In most people, the only first-person memories are the recent ones and the traumatic ones. For me, my trauma changed the way my brain stored information so thoroughly only a handful, if that, of my memories were in third-person. I don’t think those count as real memories though since I know the photographs of those moments and I’m pretty sure I just built a story around those moments that I’ve labeled a memory. They’re all from before I was 2 and I don’t think my memory is that good.

You can see how I might have a bit of a warped understanding of some things, yeah? It’s hard to really grasp how different my understanding of the world is from yours when all we can do is use metaphors to approximate our own experiences and ideas in the hopes of evoking someone else’s.

After a month and a half of rest, three weeks of which got eaten up as coping time since I talked to my parents one week before I had two solid weeks of all-day meetings, I think I’ve kind of gotten it figured out. Enough so, anyway, that I can do it every day. I’ve literally got it built into my daily schedule every day but Monday (I kinda go all day Monday, without stop, from 6am until 10pm). While that might seem a bit absurd, to schedule rest and recovery, it’s kind of who I am? I like order and having a time marked out and a box to check for every day makes it a bit easier to take the time to actually rest and recover.

I’m still pretty burnt out. Nothing is going to fix that in any short amount of time, but the rest I’ve taken has provided me with enough energy and strength to go back to writing every day, to working on my projects, and to figure out how to choose me right now. I’ve never been good at advocating for myself, but nobody else expects as much from me as I do. Any and all of my D&D players are happy to play D&D modules instead of custom campaigns. My friends understand if I don’t go for a hike with them because I need to do laundry and make D&D battle maps for the one remaining custom campaign I’m running. And if they don’t… Well, their loss.

I’m choosing myself again and I’m comfortable with the knowledge that this won’t be easy. I may stop talking to some people I’m close to if they won’t respect my needs and boundaries. I may need to get a new job if nothing changes and the same problems repeat without end. I may have to cut back on all of the D&D I’m doing so I have energy for other projects and the players who lose out might not like it. I may have to skip everything I’d planned for an evening because I really need to rest more and I’ll have to learn how to be more adaptable. There are no hard-and-fast rules here, other than I need to be aware of how I’m doing at any given moment so I can make the calls I need.

This may not seem difficult, but I almost chickened out of telling my at-work D&D group that I needed us to switch to running modules because creating the entire campaign might take the same number of hours as preparing a module, but running a module takes a lot less energy. And that’s the easiest of all the things I might need to do. They only get harder from here.

Wish me luck.