Tabletop Highlight: On the Importance of Dice

I am a firm believer in the importance of dice in tabletop RPGs. To be entirely fair, that’s not exactly an uncommon opinion, even if more people are moving toward digital dice rollers instead of actual rice. Sure, telling a computer to roll twenty six-sided dice makes it a lot cleaner and it does the math for you which makes it take less time, but there’s no feeling compared to being a twentieth level sorcerer casting disintegrate just so you can roll forty six-sided dice all at once. At one point, I literally had bought enough d6’s so I could roll damage all at once for my caster. It was an amazing feeling, making it rain dice like that. It was also incredibly difficult since I could barely hold that many at once and rolling them involved a lot of me saying “did anyone see where the beige one went?” and my friends replying “no, but I did find the purple one from last week under this radiator.” Good times.

All that aside, what I’m really talking about is the importance of specific dice, which is also a bit misleading since I’m not thinking of one specific die in all of creation. What I’m talking about is the importance of having specific dice for you to use. By our very nature, as creatures reliant on ephemeral chance to dictate the course of our gaming session, we tabletop gamers are a rather superstitious bunch. For instance, I not only have a favorite set of dice, but I pick the dice I use on any given night by how aesthetically pleasing I find them as I get ready for the game. I firmly believe that prettier dice roll better and no amount of bad luck on my more gorgeous dice can shake that belief. The inverse is also true. When my players are having a string of bad rolls, I swap to using my ugliest, most generic and awful dice so the enemies the party is facing roll worse. My absolute favorite set, the set that has rolled more triple-twenties than all of my other twenty-sided dice put together, is a beautiful set of clear plastic dice with bits of black paint or plastic swirled inside them. Unlike every other set of partially clear dice I’ve ever seen, the color is only on the inside of the dice. It doesn’t touch the outside layers at all, so you can spin the dice as you hold it up to the light and watch the smoky black color swirl at your fingertips. I don’t even let other people touch those dice. I keep them in a plastic container inside my dice bag so I’ve always got them ready to go in case I need to roll well on something important.

If you take a survey of all tabletop players, you’ll find a range of traditions and superstitions. There are players who believe in punishing their dice when they roll poorly and even destroying the dice if they keep rolling poorly after being punished. This punishment can range from something as mild as leaving the offending die on its own for a while to the incredibly gross tradition of putting one of your misbehaving dice inside your mouth for a while. I’ve even seen someone go so far as to file through a die they were punishing so it could never roll again, which just seems completely over the top to me. There are also people who believe that you need to roll all of your dice at once, regardless of how many that might be. I’ve got a friend who uses a specific die for every type of action his character might be taking in any game he’s playing, so he has to buy new dice every time he plays a game with an additional action type. I prefer to buy new dice for characters who are about to make their debut, so the character and the dice start off fresh. I generally only get new dice for characters who are supposed to be a part of a campaign for a long time and I do it to avoid any kind of mental influence on how I see the dice.

Despite the range of beliefs and the things people do with their dice, most people remain a bit more rational and logic-oriented than their superstitions suggest. I bet if you followed up your first survey with a second survey asking people if they though there really was something to their little traditions, almost everyone who answered the first one would say “no.” And yet we’d still turn around and immediately go back to our superstitions as soon as the situation called for it. The way I’ve always viewed it is that there’s no harm in being cautious or believing in something that’s probably not there. If it isn’t there, then you’ve just spent a bit of time marking a tradition. If it turns out that there was actually something to it, then you’ve got your bases covered already. It’s why I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I won’t denigrate anyone who believes in them. Additionally, and probably more importantly, it helps the players feel like they’re in control of what is pretty much just random luck. If you believe punishing your dice will make them roll higher next them, then you’re in control of your own outcomes because you can “encourage” your dice to get with the program. You more order you can impose on what seems like chaos around you, the better you feel.

The same is true of having specific dice for specific things. I probably haven’t rolled more triple twenties with my favorite set of dice than with any of my other sets, but the belief that I do roll more twenties makes me remember when I do. It’s simple confirmation bias. The same is probably true of punishing dice or whatever inane thing we all do that makes us feel more comfortable with the fact that the world isn’t as cut-and-dried as we’d like to think it is. Random things happen outside our control or comprehension and we get a glimpse of that when we play games with dice because the difference between success and failure is pure chance. For the vast majority of us, there’s no skill involved, no talent, just dumb luck. Even the most skilled of us, who should be able to succeed no matter what is thrown at us, can sometime fail because of chance. So roll the dice and hope you get more passes than failure.

Tabletop Highlight: Role-playing

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a conversation I had with my ex a long while ago, one day when we were out to breakfast. I was talking about a Dungeons and Dragons character I was making and how I wanted to role-play them. I made the comment that they were nothing like me, and she took issue with that. After a bit of back and forth, as I asked her to explain what she meant, she eventually said “you can’t be someone you’re not. If there’s no trace of them inside you, then you can’t play them and wouldn’t even want to. Any character you make is going to have a bit of you inside them.” I disagreed back then but ultimately dropped it (which is too bad, since it turns out that her view that people couldn’t change into or try to be something they weren’t already informed a lot of my reasons for ending things last summer) since she wasn’t willing to actually engage with my thoughts on the matter.

The thing is, I constantly play people I’m not. I create characters in games who look nothing like me and who do things I wouldn’t dream of doing. I role-play my way through decisions and choices I’d absolutely do differently if I were actually faced with that situation. I pretend to be evil or a sadistic, murderous asshole in order to play out a character I’ve created. I’m a Dungeon Master and I actually role-play the bad guys. I play chaotic-aligned characters who do whatever they want because they only care about myself despite the fact that I feel guilty even pretending to not care about other people. I’m constantly pretending to be someone I’m not for tabletop RPGs and video games and I’m constantly consciously stripping away my preferences and thoughts in order to be someone else.

Role-playing is my favorite kind of escapism for just that reason, to be honest. There are days when I don’t want to be me anymore. Maybe I’m tired from a day full of mind-boggling information that makes me question the sanity of people around me, or maybe I’ve worn down from a day of trying to be more forceful so people actually listen to me when I know I’m right. Either way, being able to step out of my life and into someone else’s gives me a break from whatever it was that wore me out so I can approach whatever problems I have with a somewhat refreshed mind. It doesn’t fix anything, but it can give me the time and mental space needed to be able to fix whatever is going on. The biggest downside is that I have a tendency to get caught up in it, lose track of time, and stay up way too late while playing whatever game has caught my attention. Tabletop RPGs don’t have this same problem because they’re reliant on other people who generally don’t want to play for as long as I do, but they also hold my attention less because it is difficult to stay in whatever role I’m playing if other people aren’t even trying to stick to their character.

Not even reading helps me escape as thoroughly as role-playing does. I love books and always will, but you’re still you, even if you’re still caught up in the story. As much as I like Chris Amann and think he’s an awesome dude, sometimes I really need to just be someone else for a while rather than just get away from my problems. Video games are my favorite way to get the experience because just playing as a character in a game can make you feel things. The controls for the Nintendo Switch version of the Doom remake feel like I’m piloting a donkey on rocket skates over slick ice, but damn if I don’t feel like a total badass as I rip apart enemies and just storm through levels without a care in the world. There’s almost no role-playing in Doom because it’s just some dude on a demon murdering spree, running around until he’s killed all the demons or died, but I still get a sense of escapism from that. When I play a game specifically designed for role-playing, like Pathfinder: Kingmaker or Dragon Age, I can literally forget about the guy sitting in the chair until something happens to pull me out of my game.

There is, of course, a point when this goes too far. It’s never good to entirely lose focus on who you are or what is a part of the real world and what isn’t. Doing so causes way more problems than it could even pretend to fix and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of staying just short of that line. I occasionally overindulge, but I’m generally not consciously choosing to play a game for twelve hours. I just lost track of time and didn’t think to set an alarm or something to pull me back out again. Additionally, I also tend to play most games with the same moral compass that I have in the real world, to keep myself anchored to the identity that produced and refined it. Even though I can be someone who is nothing like me doesn’t mean I have to be. I like characters who allow me to explore different ways I could be. For instance, my Pathfinder: Kingmaker is pretty much me (in terms of personality and morality), but without the firm belief that society benefits from structures and order. My Pathfinder: Kingmaker character believes that structures are order are necessary evils that can’t be avoided if you want to be a part of society, so she tends to support the local government and it’s laws while still promoting personal freedom and self-expression. It’s a fun idea to explore since it makes me reflect on the places where my belief in order and structure falls short of doing the most good possible.

All that being said, it’s still mostly about escapism for me. I don’t really sit down to play Pathfinder: Kingmaker with the thought that I should explore a particular kind of moral quandary. I just play the game to get away and wind up getting opportunities to reflect on what it means to be a good and just ruler. Role-playing is a lot of fun and can be an opportunity for reflection and growth, even if it’s a rather slow one.

Dysa of the Nothing Reminds me of Mythology in the Best Ways

I don’t know if it’s a common part of most people’s college experiences, but I spent a lot of time reading mythology. I also studied literary criticism, so I’ll admit I’m probably more likely than most to encounter mythology as it was originally written rather than just more recent adaptions. It was one of my favorite things to study because there was a long period were all stories were what we’d now call “fantasy” and we kind of just lump them all into “mythology” because it’s an easy classification. It’s a vast oversimplification of a complex and storied body of literature, but it does make life easier for everyone who doesn’t specialize in pre-modern literature or spend a lot of time reading mythology.

To that end, I think a lot of people would enjoy ancient mythology if we had more complete stories and they were translated into more modern words than most scholars use. I mean, most Norse mythology makes for a great read, but even the translated stuff is a bit dense since almost all ancient mythology we have is from someone writing down a story that had been passed down through a solely oral tradition up to that point. Oral stories tend to have a lot of repetition and they tend to spiral around each plot point for a while to make it easier on the performer. If you could streamline it all, fill in some of the gaps in stuff like The Epic of Gilgamesh, I’m sure more people would get really into it.

Since that doesn’t seem likely to happen, they should read “Dysa of the Nothing” by Arlynn Lake. While Amazon lists it as a “Suspense” or a Children’s Fantasy and Magic eBook, I honestly thing “mythology” would be a better fit. There’s a certain cadence to storytelling that appears in almost all ancient myths and “Dysa of the Nothing” captures that perfectly. It is an easy book to read, but it is anything but simply written. Something that flows through a story and a strange world with this much ease can’t be anything but the result of strong writing and a lot of work on the author’s part. It has the feel of a finely crafted statue, with all of the rough spots smoothed over and everything seamlessly joined together so that every piece of the story feels like a single, unbroken part of a whole.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the writing in this story and that, alone, would make me willing to recommend it. That being said, there’s plenty more amazing stuff to say about this book and I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on all of the high points, but I also want to stress that this was a really good read. It was engaging, it kept me interested the whole time, and it was short enough that none of it had the time to get boring. In terms of well-craft stories, this is probably one of the best I’ve read this year, right up there with Hank Green’s “An Absolutely Remarkable Thing” (which I’ll be reviewing next week) and John Scalzi’s “Head On.” It’s very different from most of the stuff I read, but it was good enough to be literally the first eBook I’ve ever fully read in an electronic format. I am so bad with most electronic forms of writing and information collection that I literally forget I have an entire (small) library of Nook and Kindle books that I’ve never even read a tenth of (going by page count since I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve never finished an eBook before). Anyway, back to the stuff most people care about: the story, its characters, and the world.

The world is deceptive in its complexity, with two very different groups of people who might not be that different after all and a long history of conflict with something called “The Nothing.” There’s a sense of long history and traditions maintained over many lifetimes as the story starts and no matter where the story takes us, there’s this sense of so much more just around the corner or hidden over the horizon. The worldbuilding isn’t as heavy or “complete” as it is in most contemporary fantasy, but there’s no need for more. There’s never a moment in the entire story were I was left wondering about some aspect of the world. You’re given exactly as much as you need to enjoy the story and maintain your suspension of disbelief. Arlynn Lake has done an amazing job at one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling (or blog-post writing): taking out what isn’t necessary. I like my fluff as much as the next fantasy fan, but I also really appreciate a good story told succinctly and, as someone who struggles with that, greatly admire an author who can do it well.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. There are not many surprises along the way, but the real point of the story is watching the characters progress through the journey that has been laid out for them. While there is some question of how things will turn out, it mostly hinges on how what the characters’ relationships will be once the story has finished rather than how the journey will end. This works well for the story since it is mostly focused on the growth of the characters and they’re the most interesting part of the story by far. I was all set to dislike the main character, a teenager named Andwith, because he’s pretty much set up as this perfect kid who can do anything, but you gradually start to see the Humanity in him, the flaws and fears he hides behind what everyone calls his Four Virtues (which are explained in the first chapter of the book). Despite his gifts and near-perfection, he still has flaws and he still makes mistakes, even if most of them are small. Plus, the story isn’t really about him, it’s about the people around him and what happens because he appears in the world (much like when Enkidu appears to change the life of Gilgamesh, though the similarity pretty much stops there).

I would definitely recommend buying this book. It’ll take a few hours to read, but they’ll be fun hours from beginning to end and the low price of the eBook on Amazon (especially if you have Kindle Unlimited) makes it a no-brainer to buy. You should check it out and enjoy a quick story about having faith in people, trying to help people become the person they want to be, and giving people a chance to be Human, even if they’re not.

Tabletop Highlight: What to Do With New Players

You’ve been running your campaign for a while and your collection of players has dwindled from the desired six to a barely tenable three. You’ve made a few semi-permanent NPCs to help lighten the load on your remaining players and you’ve changed all the encounters so that your primarily martial characters can still fight on an even playing field. Still, you and your players feel the lack of other voices around the table, other solutions to the problems you face that could be offered by one or more other players. Maybe you have some interested people who’d be willing to play the kind of game you’re running, but how do you know if they’ll fit into the group dynamic? How do you know if they’ll really enjoy the story you’re all telling when they’re not as invested as your current players. Assuming you get past the first two, how do you work them into the campaign without it feeling like you’ve put everything on pause so a new character can show up in order to bail out the party?

Adding new players into an existing campaign is always a risky proposition. There is no telling what a new face will do to the group’s chemistry or how the leadership or problem-solving dynamics will shift as you add new personalities. A lot of the potential problems can be avoided if you bring in a prospective new player on a temporary basis, for some kind of special event cooked up for the sole purpose of vetting new players. Keep in mind, no matter how well you know the prospective player, it is really important to give the other players a chance to try them out first before you bring them in officially. There is always the chance that a quirk of someone’s personality will be incredibly frustrating to someone else, even if they usually get along or you don’t see it. Since your existing players have been with you all this time, they should ultimately have a say in new players as well and group chemistry is just as important to them as it is to you, even if it is ultimately your job alone to monitor and/or police it.

While you may want to bring in a new player right away, to help the players out of a problem they’re approaching, it is usually best to save inserting the new player until there’s room in the story for it. Thankfully, stories are quire versatile and the reasons behind why a stranger might join up with the existing characters are manifold. Maybe the new character is a prisoner or a turncoat. Maybe they have goals similar to those of the party and found their way to the same place. Maybe the new character has some important information the party needs so they seem them out in town. Maybe the person giving the party their job wants to send someone they trust along to report back and ensure their goods are properly retrieve or delivered. There are a thousand ways to add someone to the game, but it’s just as important to know that every moment isn’t the right time. If you characters have been chasing a bad guy for months, one who has wronged them and only them, it would not make sense for a stranger to show up at the bad guy’s base with the thought of helping to take down someone who hasn’t done anything to them. Similarly, if your players are carrying out a top-secret mission, it is unlikely that they will willingly share information with a new person unless they explicitly know they can trust this stranger.

Usually, to get around those difficult moments and to help both get the character involve and make sure they’re a good fit with the group, find a little side adventure you can use that will involve the new player. You can watch the group chemistry to make sure everyone gets along and help the characters build a rapport so that your existing players will readily welcome the inclusion of any new players. If you’ve got the time, it never hurts to vet a bunch of players ahead of time, to see how they perform, in case you ever need to add some more people. I like to invite people I know to small parts of campaigns I run so I can get an idea of how they play and who they play well with so I can make sure to invite the right people to the right Dungeons and Dragons groups when I’m looking to start a new campaign. This means I usually have a good idea of who will fit well in a group if they initially declined or weren’t available and I wind up needing more players.

From there, if I realize I’m running short on players and will probably start wanting new ones soon, I go through my mental list of players and invite potential new players to join the campaign for a short little story, usually something heavily related to the main plot of the game with an individual twist focused around the player’s character. If they enjoy the piece of the story they got to experience, then it’s usually a safe bet that they will enjoy playing in the campaign as a whole. It isn’t a sure-fire method, of course. There are no sure-fire ways to predict the future or make certain that everyone will get along in the future, but it makes it a lot easier to confidently suggest people to your existing players and, if there are no red flags, then most game masters can handle it from there since any issues will fall within the normal range of personality conflicts most GMs handle on a monthly basis.

As always, you should consider things thoroughly before acting. There’s no rush to add players, so take the time to make sure you’re adding people who are going to have fun and actually contribute to a positive play environment. It might take a lot of work sometimes, but it’s always worth it.

Tabletop Highlight: Creating Fun and Interesting Characters

Having played and run tabletop games for over 8 years, I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create a fun, interesting, and engaging character in almost any tabletop RPG. While the strict definition of those first two descriptors means there’s a lot of subjectivity involved in the process, there are a few things you can keep in mind while you figure out what you think would be fun and interesting that would help keep the game an enjoyable experience for you and those playing with you. For the most part, they fall into two categories I’d summarize as “the ability to be engaged in or by the story and other characters” and “a series of imperfections that expose them to risk.” These are two fundamental parts of creating a character that are generally built into tabletop games with a basis in hard numbers but they can often be overlooked in other games. Additionally, the later can be avoided in hard number games like Dungeons and Dragons if the player optimizes their character in such a way that obviates all risk.

For the most part, exposing your character to risk is part and parcel with playing a tabletop game. There are some characters who avoid most risks as a result of their playing making them cowardly or extremely self-centered, but those often include the risk of negative social consequences or a loss of advancement opportunities (advancing via level or ability progression, specifically). Risk is a pretty broadly defined word and the only real way to avoid it entirely is to find a way to make your character so powerful that nothing bad can happen to him or to play with a group of people who are going to enable your (the player’s) machinations and rule-lawyering (a term that means you rely on your knowledge of the rules, their exploits, and the various gaps between them in order to manipulate an interaction in the game, either as the player or as the character, so that it resolves to your advantage). Typically, the only players who do this are the ones who actually enjoy having a character who never fails, so most of the failure here is the fact that it often frustrates other players, by either wasting their time as you argue through some obscure rule with the GM (who is always the final arbiter of rules but often lets things slide just to get the game going again) or by making their characters essentially useless.

Risk is essential because it the main vehicle for growth and change in the story your character is telling. Even if they aren’t a central part of whatever plot is currently unfolding, being unable to make them strive or risk something means they’re going to remain unaffected by whatever happens. They might learn new information or they might gain interesting new abilities, but there’s no way for them to actually change their course unless they fail something. Failure is the best teacher there is and sometimes the price of the lessons we learn are steeper than we’d like. If there was no risk of failure or loss, then what is the point in playing out the scenario? We all roll dice because we’re not certain of the outcomes and removing the chance of failure removes the need to roll dice. At that point, you might as well be reading a book or listening to someone tell a story. Sometimes, you lose it all and your character dies. Sometimes they lose something important to them. That’s just part of the game and the sooner you accept that you might need to let go of a character you loved, the sooner you’ll be able to really enjoy the character you’ve created and their experiences in the world of the game.

Thanks to the structure of games like Dungeons and Dragons, your character is automatically a participant in the story that’s about to unfold. If your character wouldn’t actually leave their humble origins and go on an adventure, you don’t actually make them. There’s always some part of them that has a goal to accomplish or some reason to want to explore the world beyond their village. In other games, it isn’t always that simple. Some games, like any that use the Fate system, require a little more intervention on the player or GM’s part. A lot of the Fate system games are based a little more in real-world sensibilities. For instance, the Fate game I’m currently playing in is based in a fictionalized version of the city we all live in because we’re familiar with it and the game requires a certain amount of city knowledge in order to navigate the game and tell a story together (the Fate system is much more role-play intensive and gives more story-telling power directly to the players). As a result of this more real-world feel for our game, are people need to be functional adults in this game. We all have lives and jobs and responsibilities that existed before the game began and most of which still exist after the game has begun. If you weren’t careful, it would be possible to create a character who has little connection to the plot and the other characters, which makes it even more difficult to keep them involved in the story. The GM can only do so much. The rest is on the player to write their character in such a way that it is easy to involve them in the story or else they’ll spend more time sitting out than anyone else.

The easiest way to get your character involved in the story is build in some flaw that allows the GM or other characters to pull them along. Maybe they have really bad luck and a history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as my character in the Fate game does. Maybe they’re an insatiable thrill-seeker with little regard for their personal safety or the lives of others, like my first fifth-edition character was. Maybe they feel it is their duty to protect the overlooked members of society and are banished from their home for speaking out against their lord when the lord raised taxes too high for the peasants to afford. Maybe they’re easily swayed or they have debts they need to pay. Maybe they’re morbidly fascinated by crime scenes and bought a police scanner so they can go gawk every day. Maybe they are so meticulous that they can’t rest until they’ve reviewed every little detail that seems out of place. All of these things have one thing in common: there’s something that allows them to be easily put in danger, manipulated, or otherwise involved in whatever is going on at the time. If you’re having trouble thinking of something that would be applicable to your current game, just ask the GM for suggestions that would make it easier for them to set a plot hook or get the players involved in some story they’ve cooked up.

How you specifically apply these ideas is really up to your own interpretation. Like I said earlier, your definition of “fun” and “interesting” is probably different from my own and you should make sure your character fits into them. Including the two things I mentioned here, risk and engage-ability, should easily fit into your definitions, though. And don’t be afraid to give them more flaws or take more risks than necessary. Most of the fun in tabletop RPGs comes from success against all odds or when everything hilariously blows up in your character’s face.

Today is My Birthday

After a certain point in high school, I haven’t been super fond of my birthday. To be honest, I never really dissected that. I don’t know if I ever spent any energy on why I’m decidedly neutral on the subject of my birthday before today. I’m all about other people’s birthdays and throw myself into celebrating them as much as I can with my limited means and social energy. But not mine. I like to mark them, sure, but mostly by gathering my friends around me to do something like we’d do any weekend. Hang out, go hiking, play D&D, maybe watch a movie or play a game together. Hell, last year I got a cake to celebrate moving day two weeks after my birthday and otherwise pretty much forgot on my own birthday.

If I’d had to say why I wasn’t very interested in my birthday before a couple of years ago, I’d have said that I’d rather celebrate personal achievements. Sure, birthdays are a celebration of life, but I’d rather just do that as a part of living it rather than taking a day to specifically celebrate a particular life. I didn’t really want attention back then and I much preferred to do things on my own terms than try to accommodate people’s desire to mark my birthday. I wouldn’t stop them, of course, I was never that much of a Grinch, but I wasn’t about to encourage it.

Now, I see that birthdays are a chance to let people celebrate you. Structure is super nice and while we should let people we care about know that we appreciate them all year long, it’s still nice to use their birthday as a bit of an excuse to make a production of it. To kick it up a notch or do something special just for them. Which is why I’m more interested in other people’s birthdays than my own. I like letting people know I appreciate them. Any resistance I currently feel to celebrating my birthday is because August has never really been that great of a month for me and I don’t really keep track of my life in terms of years. Sure, I know my age, but that stopped being a measurement of my growth a long time ago and now I keep track of time since big events.

My life has had a lot of big events and there are definitely a few that are sort of definitive moments that I know had a big impact on my life. Looking back on them, I can see how my life would have been incredibly different if I’d made a different choice and how the choices I made contributed to me being the person I am today. There’s a wide variety of events and while reflection on my life is the purpose of this birthday post, I’m not going to go deeply into all of them. Some of them were moments I don’t want to share because they mean more to me for being private or because I don’t feel ready to share them.

The first one, and one that actually was two forks disguised as one, was my parents telling my three siblings and I that they were going to have another children who would wind up being twelve years younger than me. I fell out of my chair laughing and wound up being almost a third parent to my younger sister since my dad worked a lot and my mother was homeschooling us at the time so she needed all the help she could get. I eventually realized that this was the moment that I decided to deal with the crazy randomness of life and (mis)fortune by laughing instead of crying. There’s more behind that, but this isn’t the post to go into it. I also realized that I enjoy taking care of and teaching people. It really helped me to learn to cope positively and how to be patient and compassionate.

The second is not something I’m willing to write about in any detail online, but I learned how I respond in a crisis and that there’s a certain part of me, beneath the compassion and desire to just love people that will stay firm and act when I feel like I don’t have any other choice.

The third was the college I chose. I grew more than I thought possible, in ways I never expected, and learned things I never knew I didn’t know. I met a lot of amazing people, a handful of terrible people, and discovered that we’re all the heroes of our own narratives but sometimes that means we’re the villains of someone else’s. I made mistakes and I hurt people. I made mistakes and hurt myself. Like I said, I learned a lot. Without the place I chose, I’d have been an incredibly different person, to the point of it being useless to try to guess what or who I might have been. I’ve got no frame of reference for who that other Chris could have been, so how could I ever guess? The other side of my college choice is that it also resulted in a giant pile of student debt due which has left me feeling like I’ve been forced to put my life on hold until I pay it off. Even though I don’t regret my choice and think that the choice I made was the right one, I still struggle with the prospect of all my student loans and how much of my money I’ll have sunk into them by the time they’re paid off.

After that, there’s my move to Madison and my first job after the move. It didn’t go well, but I really figured out what was important to me and what my limits were. Tied to that is another thing I don’t want to share online, from two years ago (almost to the day), that irrevocably altered my life. There are some questions you never want the answers to and, throughout my life, I’ve gotten two of them I’d prefer to have never come across. But it reinforced my resolve and sense of self. The two experiences, my first job and the thing from two summers ago, weren’t positive influences on my life, but I learned a lot from having made it through them. “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God” (Robert F. Kennedy on hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.).

It’s been a long twenty-seven years. I’ve hopefully got many more years ahead of me, but I wouldn’t mind if they were a little less eventful. I’d prefer if my next major life event was something good, like being able to write full time, getting married, or buying a house. Those would all be nice, even if there’s less to learn from the happy moments than the difficult ones.

Exposition X And X Narration X The X Anime

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Anime Hunter X Hunter, the title of this blog post is reference to how the show titles all of their episodes. And also a reference to the two biggest parts of the show that might as well be characters. In terms of story, Hunter X Hunter is an adventure show about a young boy joining an elite group of dangerous people called “Hunters” in order to find his father who abandoned him when he was a baby. Gon, the abandoned hero, makes a few friends along the way and constantly impresses people with his superhuman strength and sense until he complete his exam, becomes a hunter, and is introduced to the world his father inhabits, a world filled with people far stronger than him which exists a step removed from the world he used to know. To be specific for those wanting to look up this anime, I’m reviewing the much longer series that premiered in 2011, rather than the earlier and shorter series. That’s the one my roommate introduced me to, the same roommate who introduce me to My Hero Academia, so I’m not entirely sure what to make of his taste in Anime anymore.

Now, to be entirely fair, he didn’t talk Hunter X Hunter up nearly as much as he talked up My Hero Academia. He admitted there are some serious issues with the later episodes and that it isn’t as strong as some of the other ones he’s recommended, but it has held a special place in his heart for a long time and it’s actually pretty fun to watch. It has frequently defied my expectation when it comes to the story and I’ve enjoyed watching a large number of the crazy characters in this show wind up being surprisingly sane. An assassin bonds with his son, a martial arts instructor acts to help a pair of young fighters who are in over their heads, and two incredibly strong children are actually children who play around and get up to trouble between being ridiculously overpowered. It’s very refreshing to see it stray away from a lot of the more frustrating adventure anime tropes and to create an insane world occupied by sane people.

If it weren’t for two things, I’d love this anime. As it is, they are making it difficult to enjoy the show at times. If it weren’t for the constant exposition, often delivered by going over events that just occurred multiple times, and the steadily increasing amount of narration, I’d definitely recommend this anime to everyone who doesn’t mind ridiculous fights, stupidly powerful characters, and a hero whose main weapon is a fishing pole with an apparently unbreakable line.

While the show is rather complex, introducing some really fun concepts like the Hunter organization, a plethora of unique animals who inhabit an incredible dangerous world, magical beasts of all kinds who live in the same step-removed world as the incredible strong people, and some rather complicated and open-ended powers called “Nen,” it gets really bogged down in the details. When Nen is introduced, they just go over it countless times. While initially peppered my roommate with questions about how Nen works and what it means, the Anime answered all of those questions and more. Multiple times. In one episode. There’s literally a point where we watch a fight, get one guy’s ability explained to us in exhaustive detail by his foe as a means of psychological warfare, see the end of the fight, get the other guy’s powers explained in excruciating detail as a flashback aside by a mysterious healer who came to fix him up, and then go over them again as the hero and his friend learn about Nen from the kind man who has taken them under his wing. I was so bored and the flashback felt like it took an entire episode. If this was the first time this had happened, where the show went over ground it had just covered, I’d forgive it, but this is becoming a theme.

In the same vein, the amount of narration is getting tiring. While there is a narratorial voice who sets up and concludes each episode, the show itself does a ton of narration through the characters. In writing, there’s this phrase, “show, don’t tell,” that’s supposed to help people keep in mind that they should show the characters acting rather than just narrate through a scene. This anime does both. It shows and then it tells like it didn’t show you just a minute ago. This is heavily tied to the exposition I mentioned since the worst of it, the flashback exposition, is handled by a character narrating whatever happened. There are much more natural ways to show what happened. Heck, if they’d just gone over the fight as the two young heroes learned from their teacher and explained it all that way, it still would have made sense and then it would have been explained in a place it made sense to talk about what happened. I’ll admit that I just watched this happen a couple of hours before writing this review, so I’m still a little frustrated and steamed with the show.

I’m still going to watch more of it, though. I’m willing to sit through some odious exposition and unnecessary narration in order to find out what happens next. While the characters motivations are fairly basic–finding a father, getting revenge for the death of your family, financing your education so you can become a doctor, and trying to find meaning outside of what you’ve always been told you’re meant to be–the show explores them in a rather novel way. Gon wants to find his father, but he’s not in a hurry and he is very much committed to living his own life even if that means setting aside his quest to find his father for a while. Leorio, the teenager who looks like an adult, is willing to risk his life and harm people in order to become a doctor who can afford to freely give out the medicine that would have saved his childhood friend’s life. The child assassin, Killua, will kill whoever he needs to in order to explore life as a normal kid with friends. Kurapika, the last surviving member of his clan, will sacrifice his own life if it means getting a shot at a member of the band of thieves called the “Phantom Troupe.” Of them all, Kurapika’s story is the most cliché and ordinary, but he’s an angry child trying to take out a group of the strongest people in the world and the show has already proven that it’s not afraid to let the stars get the crap kicked out of them so I have high hopes he’s not just going to “fighting spirit” his way to victory. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but I’m a little bored of the trope. Just a personal preference thing, but it feels like it’s often used to let a character set up to be weaker than someone else win a fight they shouldn’t be able to.

I’d recommend watching the show for the characters, the interesting world, and the plot, but make sure to keep the remote handy so you can skip forward a bit once the boring exposition and narration shows up. Also maybe don’t watch every episode because I’ve heard the narration gets terrible toward the end. I don’t know for sure yet, since I’ve only watched thirty-four episodes. If the show changes a bunch before I stop watching, I might do a second review. There’s certainly been enough show in the episodes I’ve seen so far to justify doing a second one once I’ve watched more. I barely touched on the Hunter organization, the crazy exam people need to take in order to become Hunters, and the insane people who run it in a surprisingly formal and normal–if deadly–way. Let me know if that sounds interesting to you. I always need more stuff to review.

Tabletop Highlight: Player Fatalism and How to Salvage the Game

I honestly don’t know if I can speak for everyone, but it often feels like every tabletop gamer I know has a story about a game where someone was constantly pessimistic and fatalistic. Someone, perhaps even them, spent an entire session, or even several sessions, throwing their hands up in the air every time something bad happened and complaining that they knew this was going to happen or that there’s no point to them trying any more if they’re just going to die.

This happened recently in one of my games. There’s a player, the one I often bring up as the person who does some dumb stuff or makes questionable decisions (he featured heavily in the “Up for Interpretation” post from three weeks ago) who has been engaging in this kind of behavior lately. To be entirely fair, his character has died as many times as the rest of the party put together and he seems to always come up short when I roll to determine who gets to be the target of whatever is about to happen. Even his rolls tend toward failure when he tries something. He missed a sneak attack that would have insta-killed the enemy spell caster because he rolled in the single digits on his attack. He failed a skill check to make it back to safety afterwards and would have been knocked unconscious if not for an ability of his special weapon that gave him temporary hit points. The poor guy has had it rough.

To be entirely, fair, though, he makes a lot of assumptions and does a lot of stuff without thinking it through. He died during that same fight because he hopped over a barricade to attack an enemy he could have just stabbed from where he was. I let him live because he apparently didn’t realize he could do that and it’s pretty clear he wouldn’t have done it if he could have avoided it seeing as he was so low on hit points. Though, to continue being fair, he also didn’t retreat from the battle or take a back seat once he was down to nothing but his last few hit points either. He’d already seen how much damage his enemies could do with one hit and yet he continued to try to front-line them.

A lot of that behavior and those unneccessary risk-taking could have been a result of his expectation that his current character won’t be much longer for this world. He’s already created a new character to replace him, prompted by my jokes about a TPK, which I’ve managed to avoid so far since the players know when to run. There was a close moment, though, because they messed up some earlier stuff and had to deal with the consequences. That was probably the first time they were pushed to their limits from a marathon of battles rather than a single tough monster. It was winnable, though. I was never going to put them in a situation where they feel powerless or like they are being punished. If they screw up enough to get themselves killed, it will mostly be swift and decisive. Otherwise, they’ll always have options and only poor decision-making or bad luck will get them all killed.

It can be hard to keep again running, especially a story-drive one, when one of the players just lets go as soon as there’s any tension. I can’t make the game feel dramatic if someone is just giving up as soon as things look bad. They start to get angry if it keeps happening and a lot of drama and tension in story-telling is uncertainty or challenge, so I wind up trying to keep them invested without sacrificing too much story. I don’t think this player’s attitude is affecting the other players very much, but I’m hoping it’s just the recent string of bad luck he’s had (which is really just his perception of events, he’s also had some really good luck since he’s only come close to dying or getting captured).

I’m going to talk to him (and will have, before this post goes up) about what’s been going on and workshop some ideas on how to get through it. This isn’t a problem unless it’s making the game less fun for the other players and the person displaying the fatalistic behavior refuses to change. Usually when this happens, as is happening with my player, there’s something causing it. Before you try to address the problem, you need to figure out what this underlying cause is. Once you know that, you need to verbally (and privately) address it with the player so they have the opportunity to change. Not everyone realizes they’re doing it. I’m not even sure if my player recognizes that he’s doing it.

For him, the source lies in some of his first exposure to D&D and a long string of bad decisions compounded by bad luck. His first DM was very adversarial. He tried to manipulate the players constantly, forced them to act a certain way, did his level best to kill them constantly, and gave all of the good magic items and experiences to his closest friends so that other players wound up with under-leveled and under-geared characters who just died all that much more frequently. He’s had a few more experiences between now and then (most of which I’ve seen), but one characteristic of his gaming has always been making decisions without considering the consequences and bad luck on rolls. From the silly little campaign I ran to test out a book world I’d developed to a “Shits and Giggles” campaign I ran to fill my weekends, to my current serious campaign where he seems to constantly get the short end of the stick. Sometimes, it’s because he accidentally stepped on the large stick he had and wound up breaking it, but I’m sure that doesn’t feel very fun to him.

Problems with characters and DMing I can fix. I have no problem helping my players create the best possible version of their character (though I usually insist they stick to a personality rather than just minmaxing) and I generally try to avoid getting adversarial in any context. Bad luck and poor decision-making… There’s not much more I can do beyond being forgiving when he’s legitimately making a mistake as a player versus when he’s doing something reckless or risky. It’s a fine line, but I wrote an entire blog post about how to tell the difference so I’m confident I can manage it.

I hope we can figure something out. I’d hate to think he’s not having fun. That’s all I really want, as a DM.

Tabletop Highlight: What to do When You TPK

It finally happened. Because of some mistakes, poor decisions, or just a run of bad luck, you’ve encountered your first TPK. Don’t worry! A Total Party Kill isn’t the end of the world! You have options! But first, as you should do any time you have a serious, potentially irreversible character death or one that felt like a particularly stinky pile of bullshit, take some time away from the table to breath. Thankfully, only characters have died. The players can still play, the DM can still run, and the game can go on. However, it will likely be different. That’s okay, though. Every time anything major happens, the game changes. This will be just one more of those changes.

The first option is generally the easiest. Instead of being killed, the party has been captured and now must escape the clutches of some dreaded foe. Finally, the rogue can put that escape artist skill to use! The paranoid ranger who has a chime of opening hidden on his person is finally vindicated! The barbarian… well, they just hulk out like usual, but it’s still fun! They’re short on gear, don’t have many hit points, and are on a time limit! They need to escape quickly or quietly. If they’re spotted, they need to move fast. If they get stuck, they might need to make some tough choices about who lives and who dies. If they can remain hidden, they might need to find the hole in the guard rotation so they can escape undetected. Maybe they need to talk their way out and suddenly the paladin’s high charisma is good for more than never failing a save. Or maybe the wizard finally gets a chance to show just how capable he can be in a pinch, even without an hour to prepare his spells. No matter what choice you make, it’s sure to make a memorable adventure.

The next easiest option is to have a conversation with your players. There are three options most players take, sometimes individually but usually as a group. First, they might elect to create all new characters who are going to pick up from where their previous characters left off. Sometimes they’re intentionally recovering the remains, sent on a mission to find the now-dead characters by whoever sent the characters in the first place. Sometimes they’re doing their own thing and stumble over the remains of the dead characters and choose to pick up from where they left off. If they don’t do that, another option might be to just create new characters in the same world, doing their own thing, in a space far from where their characters died. Maybe they’ll eventually have to defeat the villain their previous characters fell to at some point, but maybe not. This is a new adventure and that doesn’t mean they need to even inhabit the same world, much less inhabit the same area of said world. The third option is to decide to stop playing. Some players might decide they want to move on to something else, now that the journey their character was on came to a conclusion. That’s totally fine, as long as they’re not departing angrily. If they are, or if all of your players are choosing to abandon ship now that their characters are dead, it might not be a bad idea to look back and assess if you were running a game they wanted to keep playing.

Another option, which would require a lot of work to keep the players from feeling like you just saved them for expediency, would be to have them wake up in a stronghold of an ally. Maybe they were brought back to life or maybe they were rescued, but it must have been for an important reason, whatever the method. Maybe this ally wants to use them for something and figured having a group of adventurers in their debt due to being returned from death would be sufficient motivation to get them to do whatever this ally wants. Maybe it isn’t an ally but a previously neutral NPC who wants the characters to work for them. Perhaps there’s even some kind of curse or geas placed on the characters that forces them to work for this NPC and now they need to not only pursue their given goals but figure out how to escape from the NPC controlling them. This would be a lot of fun because it’d require a lot of clever thinking on the part of the players, though I can understand that it wouldn’t work for every group.

There’s always an undead campaign. It’d work really well if they died fighting a necromancer or failed to disrupt some horrid ritual that would give the souls of everyone mortal on the material plane to some evil god. Maybe something didn’t go entirely wrong and some aspect of who the characters was before their transformation lingers. With the right kind of build-up, you could create an adventure where they either embrace their new undead forms or find a way to undo their transformations. Maybe they find the last divine caster in the area who was saved from the ritual because they were praying within a consecrated area and they can be returned to life. Or maybe they figure out how to save their souls and then take on the new undead overlords before (or maybe after) using a miracle spell to return the world to the way it was before the ritual went off.

There’s always retconjuration, the magic of changing how things happened, but that almost always feels cheap unless they died because they all rolled a bunch of fails in a row while their enemies rolled nothing but natural twenties. I’d recommend against it if you have literally any other option. You could also effectively un-do their death by stripping them of their gear and saying they managed to just barely survive, but they were looted and left for the vultures. Whoever beat them did to them what they’ve likely done to countless other humanoids and monstrous races. That would be a fun spin on things and I’d love to see how a group of players recovers from being stripped of everything that wasn’t hidden. I love creating moments for improvisation and outside-the-box thinking, so I’d really enjoy seeing what my players did in that case. I might do it as a one-off, sometime, just to see.

All of your options pretty much fit into three categories. Figure out how to get the current characters back into play (capture, not-quite-dead, or undead), create new characters (who may or may not encounter the corpses of their former selves), or just stop playing. If you have any ideas of other options, besides what I’ve listed here, I’d love to hear about them! I’m really curious about what other people do in TPK scenarios when they come up.

Every Day is an Adventure

I remember, the first time I sat down to watch Adventure Time, remarking to my friends that I wasn’t drunk enough to watch this show after only the first episode. For those of my friends who are adults and trying to start the show, I usually recommend sitting down to it with a strong drink because while I adore the show, it starts off a little weirdly. It also continues weirdly, but it isn’t jarring once you’ve made the mental adjustments required to enjoy the show. They’re not strenuous, of course. It just takes a bit of time to adapt to the over-the-top action and characters before you start to see past the surface to the surprising depths of the story and character development arcs.

Like a lot of “children’s shows,” Adventure Time can be enjoyed on multiple levels. At the most basic, there are good lessons about how to be responsible, what it means to strong, how to deal with emotional problems, and how to treat people who are different from you, to name a few. These lessons are delivered through fairly straight-forward plots and the colorful fun of an action show with heart, making it an instant hit with most kids. For those looking for a bit more, there’s actually some complex emotional and interpersonal problems that happen through the various seasons that are resolved slowly. It can be difficult to watch if you want the sort of cleaner wrap-ups of most adult shows since, for example, some things are introduced in season 1 that aren’t addressed until season 5. Emotional development takes a long time, in terms of seasons and shows, but it happens at a rate that lets the adults watching the show appreciate what is going on beneath the surface but also lets the kids slowly see the changes happen in a way they’ll understand as they go through similar (if somewhat less fantastical) situations in their own lives.

For instance, a lot of the earlier episodes are non-sequiturs, with nothing to place them inside the show’s overarching timeline, but there are details that slowly fill in the world around the protagonists, Finn the Human and Jake the (magic) Dog. Finn’s sword is an easy indicator of when an episode takes place as he has a tendency to go through them a lot faster than you’d think. His behavior and age are much more subtle ones since they don’t mark most of his birthdays or give a number to his age that frequently. Instead, you can follow the show’s continuity using plot markers and shifts in character relationships. Old enemies become friends, allies reveal ulterior motives and become enemies, and background characters rise to sudden prominence before establishing a firm place in the long list of secondary characters.

The way information is revealed to the viewer can make it a difficult show to watch haphazardly. While understanding most episodes isn’t dependent on having watched all previous episodes, a lot of foreshadowing or important subtext can fall between the cracks in your understanding of the show. As information is slowly revealed, one small bite at a time (bites that increase in size as the show goes on as the first two seasons are particularly light on details), so much that you suspect is confirmed. If you pay attention to the background in almost any episode, you could reasonably draw the conclusion that Adventure Time occurs in a post-apocalyptic world. You could also conclude that humans are rare, magic has risen in the place of most of the sciences, and there’s an incredible danger present in the world that most people see as ordinary because of how screwed up the world became following whatever apocalyptic disaster befell it. Eventually, you get enough information to assemble a picture of the past on your own. Full reveals or complete pictures are super rare, but they become reference points for the show that help shore up the history you assemble as you watch it and you can usually tell where you are in the show’s timeline by references to these points.

My favorite part of the show is the way the writers use the same method of small hints and details mixed in with a few big reveals in the emotional development of the characters. Finn, as the primary protagonist, deals with the most as he grows. Jake, the secondary protagonist, has his share as well. Even a lot of the secondary characters (who occasionally have small arcs featuring them) have complex emotional journeys throughout the show. The best example of that is probably the Ice King, a certifiably insane wizard with ice powers given to him by a magic crown he wears. Not only does he feature in a lot of Finn’s emotional growth, he changes throughout the show from a pathetic villain to a tragic villain who can’t help himself, seeing as he’s been driven insane by the magic crown he wears. Some of the most powerful and emotional moments in the show come from his stories and the way people start to treat him as they grow to understand and somewhat accept him. There’s a whole list of other characters, some with their own special mini-seasons, that undergo growth and change, and each one gets their moment to shine, even the pesky whiny ones you want to just disappear.

 

Throughout it all, aside from the big reveal or big change moments, the show manages to keep an upbeat sense of humor and a positive look on even the most difficult situations. The characters rely on each other to get through their weak moments and humor is a constant aid as they try to cope with the world they actually live in as it pushes aside the world they want to live in. Even the most resilient characters are sometimes knocked down and we get to watch them struggle to their feet again. The entire show is a lesson in getting back up after failure until you succeed and learning to accept change and growth into your life gracefully.

I’ll admit the pacing can be weird early on and that it can be difficult to accept some of the asides the show makes as it slowly works its way through a difficult problem, but every episode has something important to say if you’re willing to look for it. A lot of these messages are repeated many times, but they’re usually important enough that it’s worth hearing them again. Plus, with how human they all act, even Jake the Dog and Princess Bubblegum (who is made of gum), it can be incredibly refreshing to see people struggle to deal with lessons they’ve already learned and taken for granted.

I recommend watching it. The seasons are pretty cheap on Amazon or Best Buy, but I wouldn’t recommend getting them on a streaming service as they are sometimes in weird orders and the season-by-season breakdown in the later seasons gets super wonky. It is way cheaper to get them on DVD or Blu-Ray than to buy them on Amazon or iTunes. If you want a show that will make you laugh so hard you cry and so sad you just have to laugh, that will take you on an incredibly complex emotional journey through the eyes of a wide range of very (mentally and emotionally, since “diverse” means very different things in our world than it’d mean in their world) different characters, and will leave you constantly wanting more, I cannot recommend Adventure Time strongly enough.