Tabletop Highlight: Finding My Way to Pathfinder

The Monday night tabletop group I play with has two games we’re concurrently playing. One is a Fate game about a fictionalized version of the city we all live in, featuring fictional characters taking on problems we’ve heard about but never been directly impacted by. The other is a Pathfinder campaign using a set of campaign books meant to take out characters from some middling low-level to a much higher level. I joined halfway through the current campaign book, so I’m still a little fuzzy on the details of where this whole ship is headed. I’m just along for the ride because I will never turn down the chance to do something fun like play an Archaeologist Bard.

Professor Quiston, as he has introduced himself to literally everyone and everything with enough intelligence to pause at the flashily-dressed man wandering around in a jungle, is a representative of the research university from his home country. The country has a vested interest in the exploration of a lost city, which is how all the other players made their way from their normal lives to this remote corner of the world. Professor Quiston, being rather academic by nature, set out along at the behest of the university and entirely missed the memo that there was a group of adventurers looking to do the same thing. Rather than enjoy a set of thrilling adventures to get from the city to these magnificent ruins, he set out alone and promptly got lost in a jungle. To be entirely fair, he did get to the area of the ruins first. He just didn’t find them on his own for over two months. Instead, he walked through the jungle and used music to distract all the nasty beasts that wanted to eat him since he’s entirely too well-dressed to engage in that kind of rigorous physical activity. Truly, the life of an academic did not prepare him for the trials he faced on his own, but he found the other adventurers by stumbling into their camp one night after trying to calm himself by playing some soothing music on his harp and spotting the fire thanks to the bonus it gave him to his perception checks.

Since then, Professor Quiston has helped these much more qualified adventurers by playing music, knowing things, and being absolutely fascinating to the local wildlife. And the local civillife. Fascinate, the Bardic Music ability, works on anything even remotely intelligent and Quiston gets a bonus to his diplomacy checks if he’s using music as a part of making them. He lives a bit of a charmed life, providing illusory support, healing, and the occasional magical buff while staying far away from combat. He has a magical weapon and a magical shield, but he has yet to actually use them. He used his whip once, but that was to hit something full of baby spiders from fifteen feet away. He also used his dagger once, but that was to collect samples. He is still an archaeologist, after all. He’s gotta collect samples to ship back to his university once the support crew following the other adventurers shows up. And what samples he will have! He’s met a living god, engaged in civil discourse with a tribe of intelligent and possible demonic apes, and even found a crazy lady living in a decrepit, overgrown mansion in the middle of a slightly more jungle-y part of the woods. All without needing to bleed over it! His memoirs will surely earn him a place amongst the elites of his university, should he manage to survive long enough to make it back there.

Roleplaying aside, I’ve been having a lot of fun with Pathfinder. The system is close enough to Dungeons and Dragons’ 3.5 edition to mess me up on a couple of things since there is still some variation to how the rules work, but it has a distinctly different feel to it once you start to get into the details. The power levels are completely different and while I do miss 3.5’s penchant for having an analogue of pretty much everything in some book or another, I’m enjoying the focus Pathfinder has on improving the basics so each class feels new and powerful in its own way. I’m sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I haven’t found them yet. I’m still pretty new to the game after all. I’ve been getting a little more experience thanks to Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the computer game, but that’s not exactly representative of the whole Pathfinder experience since the computer game needed to have a bunch of stuff trimmed out of it in order to make it actually a viable computer game. I mean, I get that casters are pretty under-powered in low levels because of their lack of ability to participate in a fight once their spells have been used for the day, but I feel like fact that an all martial group can just power through every encounter is just bogus. It fits the trope of the weary, injured fighter facing off against a powerful wizard who just ran out of spells to cast, while yelling the iconic “I never run out of sword,” but I feel like there should be a better way to balance things out.

Part of the problem is that Pathfinder campaigns are set up around the idea that a group of adventurers can handle a certain number of encounters in a single day before they deplete all of their resources. The number is much lower than you might think, or else the encounters are much weaker than the party, and that doesn’t translate well to a video game. I found a dungeon that, based on setup, required me to clear large swaths of it in one run, without much of a chance to safely rest, and the sheer number of encounters that were above the “no sweat” threshold was staggering. I almost gave up and made a new character because I was struggling with it so much. It would have been fine, but all of the enemies had some kind of poison or another so even my martial fighters were running out of strength and constitution. Throw in the fact that camping supplies weigh an idiotically high amount per person per day and you find yourself unable to do anything but constantly return to the world map where you aren’t required to use camping supplies but can instead spend seventeen hours hunting in order to find enough food for six people. Instead of, you know, shooting a single deer and feeding everyone off that. Tabletop Pathfinder survival checks for food don’t generally take that long or are otherwise baked into a day’s activities.

I’m still enjoying Pathfinder: Kingmaker, despite it’s flaws. I’ve adjusted to how the computer game expects me to direct combat and manage my resources, so things are a bit easier now. I’ve also passed the weak low-level point, so I finally feel effective again. I’ve also learned a lot about Pathfinder thanks to me doing research about the rules, useful feats, and how to streamline character builds so I don’t waste levels on useless feats and skills. Still, it’s making me want to run a campaign of the tabletop version of Kingmaker, and I’ve got enough friends that it would be fun to do. I’ve never run out of a campaign book before, so I think it would be fun and relaxing to be able to do it. And, now that Pathfinder is producing a new set of rules, the original stuff should be on sale! I’ll be able to buy all the books and such for cheap! Except that’s not how nerds work. We collect shit for forever and the prices of rule books like this only ever go up unless it’s a total flop. And I do mean total. They only go down if no one likes it or buys if. If anyone likes it, the prices usually stay the same.

If you know any good online tools for Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, or online games in general, let me know about them! I only know about a couple, but I’m looking to learn since I’ve got a couple of games that could benefit from being moved online. Happy gaming!

We’ve got a new Tabletop Highlight! It’s about my experiences with Pathfinder and what I’m looking to do in the future. It’s also about the computer game, Pathfinder Kingmaker, though I’ll admit that part is a tangent. Check it out!

NaNoWriMo 2018 Day 28 (11/28)

Well, I’ve had another productive evening. I’m pretty sure a lot of my good mood was the caffeine since it disappeared once I had dinner and there was something in my stomach to dilute the coffee. It was a big dinner, which was nice since I love cooking, but I’ve learned that baking a ten pound ham is something I can do on a whim and that’s dangerous knowledge. I mean, loved glazed ham growing up and I was always frustrated that my family had put it solidly in the “special occasion” category of foods. I remember thinking that, when I was an adult, I was going to buy and prepare a giant friggin’ ham whenever I damn well pleased. Turns out, it took a few years after graduating from college for me to remember that this was a thing I could do and it wasn’t so much that I remembered I could do it as I saw a giant spiral-cut ham I could take home when I went to the grocery store to find something that would go with the stuffing I’d brought back from Thanksgiving. It was super expensive since the local grocery is exorbitantly overpriced, so it’s probably not a whim I’ll be indulging very frequently, but now I remember my love for glazed ham and I’ve learned it’s really quite simple to prepare since all you need to do is warm it up to a desirable temperature. Or, you know, eat it cold. Whatever works for you.

I meant to do writing sprints between trips to the kitchen to check on it, but I hit this weird point in my caffeine parabola where I was a bit over caffeinated and kinda loopy. I think I might be getting sick since I’m also rather congested, which wouldn’t surprise me given how high my stress levels have been lately and how crazy the weather has been this month. It’s a mini-miracle that I haven’t already come down with something before this week. I leveraged the uncertain future to push myself to write more last night, gradually working my way up to a nice three thousand six hundred words on my National Novel Writing Month project, but I think staying up past midnight is what is going to leave me sick enough to be glad I worked ahead. As I write this, I’ve only got six thousand more words to write for my project this month and I’m anticipating finishing on Thursday so I can catch a break from all this on Friday. Except for the blog post, of course. Can’t let that lapse. And the pre-writing of blog posts for the weekend so I can hopefully rest during those days. Which I probably won’t do because I’ve got a great idea for a parody of a song I want to write out.

Thus the cycle continues. Stay up too late working on something I’m passionate about, get too little sleep to stay healthy or function properly during the day, lean on copious amounts of caffeine to make it through the day, wind up energized and awake late into the night no matter how early I consume my afternoon caffeine. At least it’ll hopefully end soon. I can go from four thousand words a day to one or two thousand. You know, back to normal. At least for a little bit. I’m planning to actually keep some of this other, non-blog writing going after the month has ended. I’m not sure what, yet, but I know I’m not ready to go back to my lower writing numbers. I really enjoy having high “words written in a month” totals. This tracking is most to help me map out my writing habits, but I do love numbers and statistics, so I admit I probably spend too much time tweaking my number tracking charts and report outputs. At the end of year two, I’ll be able to tell just how many words of poetry I’ve written in a year. Or how many words I’ve written about video games. How many words of reviews I’ve done. I’ll be able to pick out my wordiest days of the weeks since I track what day the writing happens on, not just when the writing is supposed to go up here.

As much as I complain, this is working for me right now. I can always sleep in another hour or two if I need it and I’m almost caught up in my daily word count for National Novel Writing Month. It may not be the most relaxed way to do things, but I’m still getting there, which is what I’ll settle for given this month. I’ve done at least a little writing every day of the month and I will be able to end the month meeting most of my original goals. I’m going to be low on sleep, but I’ll have a whole weekend to catch up on that and unwind with updates to one of my favorite video games. I’ve even got a whole other pile of games for the Switch that I’m still working my way through, and they’re all proving to be quite relaxing. I like the movement of the smaller, simpler games to the Switch. Night in the Woods is way more fun when I can pick it up or put it down at will. The sleep mode functionality of the Switch makes it a godsend for games like that which aren’t super conducive to a gaming binge. I will never stop saying how great the Switch is as a handheld gaming console. This may be the sleep deprivation talking, but I honestly think going handheld was the smartest move Nintendo has ever made. I’m still a little upset about the reliance on motion controls for a lot of games, though. I dislike motion controls because I don’t have steady hands and that makes motion controls next to impossible for me to use for anything requiring accuracy or precision.

I’d like to get more sleep and needing only two thousand words a day to finish on time will be incredibly helpful for that, unless I wind up pushing myself to cram them all into tonight like I’ve kind of been doing the last few days. I could totally just not write a bunch extra and instead get some sleep. I told myself that last night as well, but I clearly stayed up late to get to a milestone and then stayed up even later to write this post. Sorry for how ramble-y it is.

Anyway, we’ve got three days left in National Novel Writing Month and we’re so close I can taste it! I hope you’re nearing your goal and that your last few days go well for you. Good luck!


Daily Prompt

Toward the end of a story, there’s a moment when everything comes together and the story reaches its peak. The conflict at the heart of the story is brought to the front and either resolved or circumvented. What comes next is largely up to you. You can take the Andy Weir approach and just end the story once the protagonist has been rescued with no wrap-up, or you can go around tying up loose threads like the hero of an RPG finishes all the sidequests after defeating the Big Bad Evil Guy. Or anything in between. For today, write about what comes after the climax of your story. Show us what you intend to do with your readers and either wrap things up neatly or slowly ease us out of the story by revisiting all the characters as they adjust to life after the conflict has been resolved.


Sharing Inspiration

My favorite storytelling medium besides writing is Dungeons and Dragons. I love the ability to make up and adjust stories on the fly, the chance to connect directly with my audience so I can tailor the experience directly to them and their investments, and the framework it gives me for detailed adventures filled with puzzles and audience interaction. Even if my players fail to unlock all the parts of the story I’ve created because they fail a skill check or decide to proceed in a different manner, I still love having the opportunity to create a game for them. I will always appreciate Dungeons and Dragons for giving me a chance to tell different stories and practice my framing on a regular basis. Being a Dungeon Master has probably helped me grow as a storyteller more than anything but my past year of daily writing.


Helpful Tips

If you can avoid looking at what you just wrote, I suggest you do so. As you’re trying to cram in your last few days of writing, now is the time to create new words rather than focusing on how to improve old ones. Editing is an important part of the process and there are a lot of people who edit as they go, but I think that there’s a lot of value in just charging ahead until the story is done. That method works pretty well for a lot of people, even if they prefer to do consistent and nearly constant editing. I prefer to write in what I call the “lapping” method. I review the work I did during the previous two days and then focus down on adding another day’s work behind it. I find most of my errors that way and it makes it a lot easier to stay consistent when I’m constantly reminding myself of what just happened. When it comes to pumping out new words, either for the last part of the lapping method or for a long-term writing marathon like National Novel Writing Month, I try to just focus in on adding more words and let Future Chris worry about whether or not they’re any good. There are always a lot of changes to be made after the fact, but it gets the job done. I suggest you experiment with both and then focus on whichever one suits you best.


Tabletop Highlight: Games You Never Want to End

You’ve been running a game with the same group of people for years, now. You’ve done your best to play weekly, but it has still taken the better part of a decade to get from the beginning of the game to the end. Maybe the end was a total party wipe because the fighter did something stupid. Maybe your players resolved all the open plot hooks they were interested in and, after amassing an incredible amount of wealth, have decided to retire. Maybe they finally killed that demon/elder dragon/Tarrasque and they’re officially so strong not even the gods would lightly make a move on them. Whatever the reason, the game as you know it has come to an end. Except no one wants it to end because they all get along, it’s tons of fun to play tabletop games with people, and they had this idea for a character they made a while ago that they’re dying to try…

So you extend the game. If the party-wiped, you’ve got a couple of really fun options and one simpler option. If you want to just keep it all going, then you can have some kind of fail-safe alert a new group of adventurers that the people previously trying to solve some big problem died. They get sent out to collect corpses (maybe revive the players who want to stick with their old characters), and then they carry on in the stead of the previous group. It’s easy, it makes sense in a lot of scenarios, and it makes it easy to get down to playing again. If you want something a little more challenge but that would add some depth to your world, start the party over. Everyone rolls up a new character, maybe not level 1, but probably at a lower level, and a new adventure starts. Whatever the old group was trying to prevent has come to pass during the intervening years (any number is fine, but I like to make sure it’s at least a couple of generations so everyone has a chance to discover all of the ramifications of their failure) and the new group is trying to either fix the problem or facing some new threat in the world created by the death of the older group. This, of course, necessitates that the issue the old party was trying to prevent wasn’t something truly world-ending. If that’s the case, you could always throw out some kind of “incarnation cycle” spin and have the players basically play themselves reincarnated on the new world the gods made in response to the destruction of the old world. There’s a lot of fun opportunities their, including relics from the old world and maybe some kind of special, inherited powers from your previous incarnations. The sky is the limit here.

If all of the characters have decided to retire from their lives of adventuring with their dubiously gotten gains, that opens the door for a generation-spanning game! Maybe the players can roll up the children, adopted or biological, of their old characters. Or, perhaps, the child of someone else’s character. Students or protégés are also fair game. However it happened, they’re playing someone who grew up under the tutelage of a character from the old game and, as a result of something happening (anything from the tragic death of their mentor to a decision to emulate their mentor’s life of adventure), has hit the road to find our what’s on the other side of the horizon/save the world/strike it rich by looting the long-dead corpses of other adventurers and the private homes of the various races who don’t live in the same kind of societies that your adventurers grew up in. Maybe an unresolved plot hook the previous generation chose to ignore has come calling again, perhaps grown more urgent as a result of the passage of time. Maybe one of the magic items or artifacts collected by the previous generation is the key to some plot a new villain has hatched and they used the old hero’s advanced age as an opportunity to put their dastardly plan into motion.

If your players have all gotten to the point where there is nothing left to truly challenge them besides the gods, maybe just start a new campaign in their shadows. The new characters grew up in a world forever changed by the actions of the old characters and are inspired to set out on their own adventures by the legends still living and walking on the mortal plane. This creates a lot of narrative fun for the DM because whatever problems the new characters are given to solve, whatever legends they chase, can’t be big enough to draw the attention of the more powerful adventurers who still live and exert their will upon the world. This can also create a lot of fun situations because you can have players reprise their old characters in role-playing moments, maybe because the new characters are hirelings who the old character is paying to take care of some problem that’s probably beneath their notice or that they don’t really have the time to solve on their own. Or that they just don’t want to deal with, similarly to how most people pay someone to change the oil in their car rather than learn how to do it themselves. Whatever route you choose, it’ll be memorable so long as the incredibly powerful previous characters are still around to pop up now and then. Plus, most players love to see their old characters crop up in a campaign.

Whatever you decide to do, just make sure you talk to the players about it beforehand. Most of them would love to figure out what their characters decided to do after retiring or getting too powerful to be stopped, so that’s a good opportunity for them to become more invested in whatever game comes next. The idea of playing in a world where your old character is walking around and living their life is incredibly inviting. The opportunity to maybe run into them and to see them play out a scenario again is one I, personally, would never pass up.

Tabletop Highlight: Creativity in Monsters

There’s a D&D joke that’s gone around the internet a few dozen times about Mimics. “The barkeeper asked why we carried weapons on us in the bar. I said ‘Mimics.’ The barkeeper laughed, the party laughed, the table laughed, we killed the table. It was a good time.” It does a good job of illustrating the potential dangers a D&D party might face and why most tabletop players have a heavy dose of what we like to call “adventurer’s paranoia.” It’s the idea that almost anything can wind up wanting to attack adventurers and crazy things like chests that want to eat you, talking tables, and ceilings that decide they want to invade your personal space are all relatively normal.

If you spend any amount of time looking through D&D source-books, you find a whole slew of things specifically designed to be hidden until they’re eating you. There are all manner of horrible tree or stump creatures that will destroy an unwary party, not to mention all the horrific vines, lichen, and fungi that will kill you before you’re aware they’re trying. Then there are the ravenous beasts of the various wildernesses, territorial intelligent monsters, magical traps, and let’s not forget the Demons/Celestials/Fey who sometimes just want to screw around with mortals because they’re bored. Chairs come to life, the suits of armor in castles are almost always going to attack you, paintings can hide mesmerizing or mind-control magic traps, and even something as simple as a hallway can turn into a deadly gauntlet of hidden pits, spring-assisted blades, and magical fire at a moment’s notice. Carelessness causes death and only a screwy mind filled to the brim with paranoia can save you and your allies.

That being said, a lot of D&D campaigns don’t make use of all of these things. Traps are difficult to set up and often unrewarding from a DM’s perspective because two skill checks can bypass them entirely. Bringing the outer-realms of existence into the mortal plane is often a decision made by the story the DM has set up or the players have started, and that’s a hugely complex set of worlds to bring into any game without sufficient preparation. Everything takes a lot of work to set up and the players often wind up avoiding all of your preparation in favor of some unexpected route that doesn’t fit anything you’ve made. Monsters and encounters created off the cuff are rarely as creative and unique as the stuff you’d spent a week of evenings planning.

In my experience, you best bet is to always make sure to include a few intelligent monsters. If they’re smart, it means they have likely survived for a long time and have a wealth of experience to draw on when it comes to screwing with the party. Sure, the hallway doesn’t have any traps, but maybe a fleeing monster ruffled the carpet a bit because he knows the adventurers following him will be proceeding carefully. If they think there’s a trap, they’ll take the time to be thorough, giving the monster and its allies time to better prepare.

Ambush predators are almost always intelligent as well, with a whole history of successfully managing to prey on inattentive mortals. There wouldn’t be mimics pretending to be treasure chests if it hadn’t worked really well for a long time. Maybe one of them is smarter than the others and uses the shapes of its less-intelligent brethren to guide its own decisions. My favorite example of this was a mimic my party encountered. Elsewhere, there was a mimic as a treasure chest and a mimic as a door, so this one decided to assume the shape of the door frame rather than the door, because it knew it wouldn’t catch anyone off guard if it was just another door.

It is important to remember that, just because the creature is a monster doesn’t mean it’s fine dying or an idiot. Yeah, it would probably suck for your party’s caster if the monstrous stump attack it first, since the caster has so few hit-points and no ability to resist the monster’s poison, but why the heck would a tree stump smart enough to hide and attack opportune prey attack the armor-covered party tank who could shrug off all its hits? Controlled monsters require specific direction to differentiate, but any free-willed creature should be able to tell the difference between an easy target and a difficult one.

If you’re looking for ideas to justify your players’ paranoia, the internet has some really great ideas. Homebrew monsters are fine since all you need to do is make sure it isn’t going to be an unfair, unwinnable fight. If you’re looking for this sort of thing, you’ve probably gotten fudging things well in-hand, so being able to take the idea of an overly powerful homebrew creature and bringing it down to being an appropriate challenge for your player should be easy. If the world is really as full of dangers as they players think it is, make sure not to let them down, you know?

When it comes to other creatures, like goblins and kobolds and anything intelligent, the idea that they’re willing to fight to their death is a little far-fetched. Maybe the fight was brutish and short, like the time my party killed three rocs in the time it took for them to make a first approach, but any drawn-out fight should mean the losing party has the chance to surrender or flee. No squad of goblin soldiers is going to fight to the death without some level of magical compulsion or incredible fear of whatever is directing them. Or they’re fanatics. Fanatics love fighting to the death. Just make sure they’ve got weird tattoos, clothing, and jewelry.

Just make your monsters interesting if your players want a little depth or fanatical and crazy if they just want to kick down doors and kill stuff. Monsters should reflect the your setting’s level of realism if you want your sessions to be believable. Good monsters and enemies are an important part of making the game feel real for your players.

Honestly, I could probably do an entire week of posts on making good monsters. This catch-all post feels a little scattered to me, so I think I’ll revisit this once I’ve finished developing (and running) the dungeon my players are about to face since it is going to be all about realistic, intelligent, and creative monsters. This is going to be a lot of fun for me and will hopefully give my players the opportunity to rise to new challenges.

Platformers Never Fall Flat

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most rewarding single-player games out there, in my opinion. They provide the opportunity to tell wonderful stories through the visuals and the interactions between characters in the game without getting bogged down by complex levels or difficult controls. For some platformers, the whole point of the game is the controls, telling a passive story as you move through levels expanding your ability to explore as you go. There’s so much variety out there that I can’t cover them all.

While most of my favorite games are not platformers, it is easy to say that it is my favorite genre of game. Ever since I played Math Blaster as a kid, I have enjoyed working my way through levels by solving simple puzzles and jumping from one bit of safe ground to another. The various Super Mario Bros games, most of the Game Boy games I enjoyed that aren’t Pokemon, tons of great indie games now, and so many easter eggs in bigger-budget games.

Platformers have been in the news a bit more than usual lately. With the advent of Super Mario Maker and games like Cuphead, platformers are getting a lot of attention as a result of their often higher-than-average difficulty. In a lot of games the difficulty is adjustable, making the enemies tougher or weaker, or by giving you more or less information for solving the puzzles. Platformers, though, don’t always have adjustable difficulty. Celeste, for example, did not. There are levels you can unlock, though, that are basically more difficult versions of each level.

For a lot of platformers, the difficulty is set by the precision with which you must control your character. There are Mario Maker levels that require you to pretty much get your timing and movement down to the pixel in order to succeed.  Cuphead is notorious for difficult fights due to the shifting nature of the boss battles, which require you to constantly stay on your toes. Celeste requires you to repeat the puzzles until you succeed, trying to navigate around barriers and use the various game rules and moves to figure out how to move through the stage. This includes adding in a few false-leads that require you to fully consider your actions before you take them. Even replaying levels doesn’t necessarily make them easier because knowing what you need to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. I ran into that a lot. I’d get 90% of the way through a screen, die, and then struggle to get past the 50% mark all over again.

I really enjoy platformers because of this. I get frustrated, sure, but it feels super rewarding to be able to zip through a screen by nailing every move perfectly. I’m not terribly discouraged by failure, so it is easy for me to sit there and attempt to pull of the same sequence of moves for five or more minutes if I encounter a particularly difficult puzzle. My main problem with most platformers is that they’re often on the computer and I don’t really enjoy playing them on the computer. Getting Celeste for the Switch instead of my PC was the best decision I made in the last month. Being able to pick it up for only five minutes and then being able to put it down without worrying about accidentally closing the game is invaluable. I own a bunch of PC platformers that I’d probably re-buy in an instant if they made a version for the Switch.

I’m no platformer god. I’m persistent and I learn by doing, which means I tend to think better by making split-second decisions without too much time to analyze. This gives me an advantage because that’s what platformers, especially ones based on momentum, need most of the time. Only a few times has Celeste given me the opportunity to look ahead so I can determine what I need to do and it is the only platformer I’ve ever played that lets me do that. I enjoy the challenge of momentum-based games, even if I often flub the ending of individual challenges because I continuously forget to watch where I land instead of the difficult bit I’ve just navigated. I’m pretty sure this habit of mine accounts for at least half of my deaths in Celeste.

I thought I was Overwatch-ing Sports on TV

I’ve never really been one for watching sports. Sure, I’ll keep up with the big-deal games and news, but more as a desire to participate in society than from actual interest. I’ve got nothing against sports or people who enjoy watching them, I just only really enjoy them as a way to interact with people. Watching the game with some friends is fun, but mostly because I’m with my friends. This has held true during the rise of e-sports, which have captured the attention of many of my friends who generally shared my apathy toward professional sports. Only this year has that changed. With the advent of the Overwatch League, I’ve finally started taking an interest in a professional sport.

Which it totally is at this point. There’s a league, a code of conduct, privately owned teams, merchandise, specialty merchandise, and publicly broadcast matches you can watch. Heck, you can ever get into twitter arguments about whether or not you think a team should have won. Thankfully, there are fewer moments where a loss can be blamed on a referee since software is the final arbiter of truth and anything you disagree with is a result of the tiny bit of lag between the server and your computer/display. The players make a bunch of money and the popular ones make even more, there are licensing deals in the works, and we’ve already had a few scandals that temporarily disqualified people. Finally, the most important part of determining whether or not something is a sport, ridiculously young people have already aged out of the professional scene. For e-sports, that seems to be somewhere in the early to mid twenties.

Every time I go to watch an Overwatch League match on Twitch, I remark to my roommate (who watches them all with me) that the players are all babies. I mean, sure, they’re required to be at least 18, but that’s still practically baby age. I recognize that I’m getting older and I don’t have to go back that far in my Facebook photos to find pictures of me looking like a baby, but it still feels ridiculous to see how young they all look as they sit on top of the world. Well, as they sit on top of this particular portion of the world. I feel kind of bad for them, honestly. They spend their teenage years getting good enough to qualify, lose their early adult years to professional gaming, and then age out by the time most people are graduating from college. That’s gotta be rough, you know? I don’t envy them their positions or problems. I doubt I’d do that even for the amount of money they’re making from streaming and merchandise. I want to enjoy my gaming.

Honestly, though, even for a first-year sports league, Overwatch is a lot of fun to watch. I’m a good enough player to recognize the flow of the game, key tipping points, and what a player did that resulted in their death or a big kill-streak. It is a lot of fun to sit on my couch with my roommate and discuss the matches as they’re going. I’ll admit I still maintain a certain degree of apathy, but I prefer to watch and dissect when I can. My roommate watches all of the old matches on YouTube once they’re over, if he misses a broadcast, but I’m content to just look for highlights and cool plays. I don’t have a favorite team yet, since I don’t really follow any of the streamers, but it has been really cool to see how much some of the strong solo-players have shined. I prefer my tanks, and really enjoy seeing a good tank play, but those are relatively rare given the current accepted strategy for the professional scene. I’ve still gotten to watch a few nice tank plays, though.

The popularity of the Overwatch League has brought a lot of players back to the game and I’ve enjoyed the wider variety of players. I’ve also enjoyed that pretty much everyone is trying to emulate the professional team compositions and play styles, because it makes it easy for me to work around them or take them down. Professional-style play only really works if you’ve got the skills to back it up. One person who knows what they’re doing can easily disrupt an entire group of people who are trying to emulate something they saw on Twitch and don’t have the skills to do. I was able to place in the top 45% of players, world-wide, for the current competitive season by almost solely playing to counter professional team compositions. Backup from a group of competent players who knew what I was doing was integral, of course, since it was up to them to actually do something with a disrupted and disorganized team.

I think I enjoy the professional e-sports league so much because I enjoy playing Overwatch. I don’t really enjoy playing most sports and most other games in e-sports, so I’ve never really had the chance to see something I’m good at and enjoy on my TV like this. I’m looking forward to how the Overwatch League grows and develops over the next few years. Maybe we’ll even start to see our first e-sports bars pop up around town! I’m willing to bet one already exists somewhere. An Overwatch-themed one would be a lot of fun!

Tabletop Highlight: Concept

I hope that you’re having a wonderful holiday season and that those of you who celebrate it are having a wonderful Christmas. My family does most of our celebrating on Christmas Eve, so I’m already home and bundled up in front of my computer, preparing myself for work tomorrow. I’m also starting my search for deals and bargains on a few post-Christmas presents to myself, and one thing has jumped to the top of the list for me as a result of this past weekend.

Part of my family’s Christmas ritual includes time for board games and this year, we played a wonderful game my sister brought called “Concept.” Concept is, as Wil Wheaton describes, “like pictionary for writers.” You can get a nice summary of the rules in the video I linked there, so I’m going to focus on a few of the higher concepts of the game. Unlike similar games, where it is a player’s job to communicate something to the other players, such as pictionary or charades, Concept limits your communication to only placing little plastic items on a board covered in icons. You aren’t allowed to communicate using pictures, gestures, or any of the other ways available in pictionary or charades, which means there is often less for the players to go on when they’re guessing. At the same time, the variety of items and icons means you can sometimes say more. Both of these things can be severely limiting.

If you put down too many items on too many icons, it becomes hard to tell what concept you’re trying to communicate and the people guessing can guess a wide variety of things that may not be related to what your concept is. If you have too little, its possible the players will get stuck and be unable to made the intuitive leap you’re trying to nudge them toward. Hard concepts, such as people or movies, are generally easier to communicate. Soft concepts, such as phrases, are much harder. That being said, that’s not always the case. My brother and I spent ten to fifteen minutes trying to guess what our sister had picked and she got so frustrated with our inability to guess that she accidentally let her concept slip when she was berating us.

To be fair, neither of us had seen that movie in a long time. To continue being fair, it shouldn’t have been that hard and I feel almost ashamed of how dense I was in retrospect. The intelligence of your players is the only real limitation on the game, so you should probably be careful when considering playing it with young children and adults who have been drinking. I’d like to say the alcohol clouded my wits, but I hadn’t drunk enough by then to use it as an excuse. Also, alcohol is really only limiting when you’re the person who is trying to convey the concept. Guessing just gets easier and more fun the more you drink.

You can play it with as many people as you like, so long as they can all fit around the board, and all the concepts are family friendly, so no need to worry about upsetting Grandma or Grandpa. I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for a new party game to try.



What Does “D&D” Mean?

I’ve been playing D&D for going on 7 years now. That’s not a long time by any means, since I only started playing in college, but it has been a pretty significant part of my life ever since then. I had a really good DM the first time I really played (a campaign) and a really bad DM the second time I played. The third time I played, I was the DM.

As any DM will tell you, the first time you run a campaign is always rough. I’ll definitely admit that a lot of the issues weren’t a result of an inability on my part, but more a result of the social dynamics that grew up over the year and a half that I ran my first campaign. Things started well enough, everyone had a good time, and I had a pleasant world for the characters to explore. By the end, I was making dumb stuff up just to fill the next session, my players resented what I had built for them, and some of the players tried to stage an intervention.

While all that was going on in our sessions, the group of players (who had become my only friend group over the past year due to most of my other friends either leaving the college or picking sides in an argument in our fraternity that I refused to get involved in) stopped spending time with me, my best friend tried to get my girlfriend to break up with me and date him instead, and all of my friends (how they all found out, I’ll never know) decided that it would be best to keep all of this from me. I suppose you could see why I might not be super motivated to make their D&D experience an enjoyable one.

After that, I didn’t do much large-scale DMing for almost a year. I ran a few sessions here and there, did a couple one shots, had small-scale campaigns to test worlds I had built, and was unable to find D&D to play anywhere else. After a year and a bit had passed, and I had gotten some closure on what had happened with the players in my last major campaign, I started a new one. I built this elaborate, ridiculous world that broke most of the rules players take for granted and was entirely geared around the idea of just having fun.

After that, I generally tried to keep my campaigns on the sillier side. I’m really good at keeping people laughing, at fostering a relaxed, fun atmosphere, and coming up with the best jokes and situations for the people currently playing in my campaign (there was no set cast since each session was its own full adventure) was fairly simple. I will admit that I stayed away from the more serious and story-oriented campaigns because of how horribly things went the last time I’d done one. I didn’t think I could stand being rejected and hurt like that again.

I really like to make people laugh. I enjoy story-telling more than almost anything. I enjoy creating these worlds for people to explore and helping them to reach their utmost potential. I love being a dungeon master. Even with all that, there was always something missing for me when I ran one of my silly campaigns. I never enjoyed it as much as I knew I could. In early 2016, I realized it was because I was telling stories without nuance, stories without a life of their own that took place in a two-dimensional world. Yes, they could be fun, but I knew there’s so much more that I could be doing.

Early last spring, I started a new campaign with my roommate and three of our closest friends. A small party with a tight focus on what was going on in the world. I painted broad swathes of the world in simple colors and then filled in the narrow sections they occupied with extraordinary detail, giving them the feeling of really living in the world. I provided them with an array of tools and sub-plots that they could pick and choose from, figuring out how to use each tool to fit their situation and finding their way down what seemed the random disparate paths of their plots only to find them all tied together neatly at the end of the first story arc. We brought in a fifth player to fill some of the gaps, another close friend, and I was able to add even more to the world with what he brought to our sessions.

As we approach the one-year mark, I can happily say that we’ve avoided all the problems I ran into with my first major campaign five years ago. The whole group is getting along excellently, they’re all enjoying themselves, and they’re all clamoring for our next session. My social life has only improved since we started playing and I’ve now got an even larger group of people who want me to run for them. I’ve started exploring new ideas of what it means to run a D&D campaign and how players can experience a D&D campaign. I’ve got so many new ideas for how I could accommodate a group of over a dozen potential players that I am super excited to try out. I can’t wait to see what this year brings for me as a DM.

I don’t play D&D as much as I used to and I kind of regret that. I really enjoy being a player and I can never seem to get enough playing that I’m ready for a break, but being a DM is where my heart truly resides. DMing is my favorite way to experience D&D and to truly live out what I believe it means to play Dungeons and Dragons.

To me, D&D is a way to connect with people I would otherwise have a hard time connecting with. D&D is a way to practice my skills as a story-teller and get instant feedback. D&D is a way to create a space in which my friends can relax and enjoy themselves. D&D is fulfilling in a way that the job I’m leaving has never been. D&D helps me scratch the itch I feel, that drives me to write, in a way that recharges my writing energy. I may end each session feeling tired and worn out from putting all my energy into making my campaign fun and engaging, but I’m never more inspired to write or create as I am when I put away my dice and stick my books back on their shelf.