The Trials and Travails of Playing Dungeons and Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: 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.

Ready Player One: The Book

After writing the review for last week, I sat down and powered through the rest of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I liked it a bit more than the movie in some aspects and a bit less in others. The plots are essentially the same: the game world’s creator passed away and left his vast fortune to whoever completed his puzzle first. There are a series of challenges and puzzles, each set awarding a key and then a gate, at the end of which is the prize: Halliday’s Easter Egg (in this case, an easter egg is something hidden by the developer of a game, usually as a way of leaving their mark on the game they created). The exact challenges are all different, though some are more similar than others, but the basic ideas of the competition are the same.

Overall, I probably liked the movie more, but I think that is a result of the different reference period. In the movie, the cultural references have been expanded to include more modern references in addition to the 80s references. While the movie was super fun to watch because I could look for things I knew, the book felt like it was touting the superiority of 80s culture and implying that there hasn’t really been anything worthwhile since. It wasn’t a huge deal because either I knew enough to understand the references or they were explained well enough by the narrator, but it felt a lot like I was talking to someone who is so convinced that they are correct in their opinions that they refuse to even listen to what you’re saying.

Despite this feeling, I actually liked the characters from the book more. They felt a lot more human and behaved a lot more like every gamer I’ve ever met. They get things wrong, they make mistakes, they’re all hyper-paranoid, success-obsessed dorks who are so focused on their current goal that pretty much everything else fades from view. The protagonist abandons his friend and, to a lesser degree, his quest for the prize, in order to spend time with his romantic interested. As soon as he’s back on the quest, after being rejected by his romantic interest, everything else fades away as he tries to make progress on the next puzzle between him and the next key. At the same time, some of their interactions felt a little off as well.  The eventual relationship between the protagonist and his romantic interest feels even weirder than it did in the movie, when she suddenly just gives the lead to him as soon as they meet. The relationships between the other characters who aren’t potentially romantic partners feels a lot more natural, so the contrast makes the fledgling romance stand out even more. There’s also a deus ex machina moment from Ogden Morrow, where he just shows up and fixes something.

That part was probably the most frustrating part of the novel that they thankfully changed for the movie. The protagonist comes up with this ridiculously complicated plan that relies on getting extremely lucky and not only does everything work out as he hoped it would, it all turns out even better than that. Everything just falls into place for him at the end. As soon as crunch time starts, gone is the fallible human character who made mistakes. He gets replaced by a god who is nervous about whether or not his plan will succeed, but who ultimately manages to pull it all off without any major stumbles, thanks to several other lucky occurrences from the past. There was no tension at the end of the book because it was so obvious he would succeed, and not just because I saw the movie. Plans that shouldn’t have worked, work. No one recognizes him or sees through a rather desperate plan. He manages to just have everything he needs to make it work, because he’s a little magpie who collects shiny things that just so happen to always be exactly what he needed later on.

 

That frustration aside, I think I appreciated the way they overcame the antagonist in the novel a bit more in the movie. It made for a much less tense and showy moment, but I like the critique a little better. The movie says it is easy to hide in a faceless crowd if you are faceless as well, but the book says that relying too much on technology to work for you without having a proper understanding of it allows other people to use it against you.

They also changed some of the points that the game world’s creator makes at the end, but I feel like the movie’s point made a bit better than the books. Even though I enjoyed the book, I felt like it was trying to say a few important things about the world but sort of stopped a few steps short of actually saying them because it just assumes you’ll understand. If you enjoy video games and want a cool book about a virtual reality world that doesn’t wind up asking questions about what is real and does the “real” world matter if we live our lives in the virtual one, you’ll enjoy this book. If you dislike pandering or feeling like someone is saying that nothing cool or worthy was created since the 80s, then you probably won’t like this book.

Ready Player One: The Movie

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this movie. I enjoyed watching it, for sure, but I feel like I’ve got a few too many problems with it to really come up with a positive review as I look back on it. The effects were great, the movie did a great job of pulling me in, and the characters were a lot of fun to watch. At the same time, the plot felt very rushed and kind of oddly-paced, the main character basically Mary Sue’d his way through everything, and all the other characters pretty much just fell by the wayside in order to let the main character stand out when he really shouldn’t have.

To be clear, I had only read half the book before seeing this movie so I’m going to completely discard my feelings about the movie as they relate to the book. I’m going to focus on the movie as a movie and then, once I’ve finished the book, review the book in a separate post.

I really enjoyed the visuals of the movie. It looks like mostly CGI, which made a lot of sense given that most of the movie happens in a virtual environment. The effects team did a great job of mixing wondrous and mundane so that everything felt familiar and understandable while still feeling different and interesting. Subtle shifts in the environment, the variety of the characters depicted who WEREN’T just copy and pasted from some game, the movements and body language of the characters was superb, and the few mixed live-action/CGI shots were sewn together wonderfully. There were almost no awkward angles, the battles flowed like a mighty river, and the few scenes we got off the character’s while they were logged into the virtual world were hilarious depictions of the sort of odd way the virtual world translated to the real one. all together, it did an excellent job of keeping me invested in the movie aside from a few points when the plot or writing threw me off.

Despite those moments, I have to give the writers credit for taking a story that is difficult to tell without the slower pacing of a novel and turning it into something a coherent movie plot. The world takes a whole lot of introduction to make sense in the book and the movie manages to not only skip most of that, but make the world feel more real in one fell narratorial swoop. That being said, it feels like an incredible stretch that no one figured out the secret of the first challenge until our main character just got lucky and stumbled onto the answer. Because that’s what he did. He got stupidly lucky and just stumbled his way into the correct solution. He didn’t have a flash of insight, he got spoon-fed the answer by a robot. Being an avid gamer myself and knowing people who take gaming to the point of an unhealthy obsession, I can say that someone would have figured out the secret of the race in the first month.

In a similar vein, it was incredibly frustrating to watch a bunch of uber-gamers work together without so much as an argument or attempt to get one over each other. I can’t even get that level of cooperation out of my friends when I play Overwatch and that is a game literally designed to promote teamwork. Most of us gamers have a massive competitive streak and I have a hard time believing that not a single one of these top five gamers thought about going for the prize themselves. They eagerly stand aside for the main character and one of them, the main character’s romantic interest and the player who seemed to be his main competition, literally declares that the main character has to be the one to take their one shot at the prize. That’s seriously a (paraphrased) line from the movie. Its even repeated a few times and absolutely no one says anything against it. Every other player competing for the prize is some amazingly skilled and wealthy character who has spent a huge amount of time accruing items, weapons, armor, and skill, but they all stand aside for the leather-clad, pistol-toting main character who was so broke at the start of the movie that he had to slow down during races to collect the coins from dead characters in order to get enough fuel for his car to finish the race. Seriously. One of the characters turns out to be the leader of some kind of rebellion and they immediately stand aside to let the main character take the lead as soon as he shows up (which only happened because they rescued him). It was so grating to see a powerful, strong character immediately defer to this wimpy, useless main character.

Seriously, aside from knowledge of the subject matter relevant to their search, the main character had nothing going for him. He should have been outclassed at all turns and only isn’t because everyone around him does everything for him or he just gets lucky. He shouldn’t have won. Anyone who was obsessed with this competition as the movie said all the other characters were, should have been able to figure out what the main character did. That’s the trouble of solving intellectual puzzles in a movie: there’s no way to show the character straining or working hard without showing them fail and failures are trimmed down in most movies so that the director can save a few minutes for more action sequences or proselytizing from the movie’s moral authority.

Thankfully, all of the “good” characters shared that job.  No one person acted as the moral figure and the constant interaction between the characters kept things interesting when they were all around. Their banter was fun to listen to and they all did an excellent job of keeping the story moving along despite the awkward plot choices. The biggest problem I had, was that there was almost no awkwardness when the characters meet for the first time. Only two of them have been friends on the internet for very long, but they all seem to fall in together like they’ve been the best of friends for years. As someone who has had several of those “meet someone in the real world for the first time after really getting to know them in the electronic world” moments, I can say that they’re almost always awkward to some degree or another. It expedited the plot, but it pulled me out of the movie a bit.

There’s a lot to be said about all the references I saw and all of the ones I didn’t see, but I’m going to skip over that because finding the references for yourself is a significant chunk of the fun of the movie. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. Which means I think you should see it. Probably not at full ticket price, but it is definitely worth the $5 for a Tuesday showing at a Marcus theater or however much a ticket costs at your local cheap theater whenever it hits the cheap scene. Or rent it when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray. Whatever you prefer since this really isn’t a movie you need to see on a big screen.

Tabletop Highlight: Working with Your Players in D&D

I know I write about D&D a lot. I have a lot to say about it. Aside from general things like “video games” or “books,” I don’t think I’ve spent more of my leisure time on anything other than this campaign I’m running. I’m constantly running over details, thinking about what I think should come next, and trying to figure out what my players are going to want to see next. After the travesty that was the collapse of my first D&D campaign, way back in college (fun fact: it fell apart almost exactly 6 years ago), I take my players’ input, ideas, and desires much more seriously.

I did a good job, back then, of listening to what my players wanted and there were a lot more factors involved in the collapse of the campaign other than my DMing, but I know it certainly didn’t help things. Now, I listen, implement, and predict. I play mostly with people I know fairly well and I generally don’t get into “serious” story stuff until I know what everyone wants well enough to produce a story they want to star in. Before then, I keep it super generic, roll with whatever they respond well to, and do whatever I can to help them figure out where their characters are going.

My best example is a story I’ve referenced a few times now. How the Half-Elf (previously Halfling (previously Rilkan)) lost his body and why Raise Dead wouldn’t work on his Halfling corpse.

The campaign started simply. The players all made level 1 characters using my slightly-modified 3.5 rules and they were all acting as guards for a colony. Typical first-level stuff since this world sends colonies of mixed race out into the wilderness in order to expand the territory held by the federation and sent a large quantity of guards along because colonies had a bad habit of disappearing or falling to wilderness creatures. In exchange, the guards were given parcels of land, money to start a business in a new economy that was backed by the government, and any treasure they accumulated over the course of their duties.

They colony ran into the usual wilderness problems like kobolds, corpse-eating dogs, and zombies. It quickly became apparent that some force wanted the colony gone, so they players set out to discover what that force was. After a few horrible accidents that resulted in the death of a temporary character and the arrival of a permanent character for a new player, they settled in to figuring things out and protecting their colony.

I don’t know if you’ve ever played first level characters with new-ish players, but they often wind up changing their minds about the direction they want their characters to go in. Rather than scraping the character and making a new one, I usually let them make a few adjustments during the first half-dozen sessions. This time, the players got all the way through their first few levels before the Paladin and the Rogue told me they wanted to change-up their characters.

At this point, I had the basics of a story percolating and I instantly had an idea of how to work in their proposed changes AND give them a plot hook none of them would ever want to ignore. So the Rilkan’s subplot became a major plot and the necklace he inherited started becoming a bigger problem than he anticipated. Suffice it to say that, several failed Will Saves later, the demon inhabiting the necklace convinced him to free her of the last abjurations holding her in place and she then used her powers to displace his soul in his body.

After that, she trapped his soul, stunned the whole party (except the Paladin), and gave them to the rather old Black Dragon they were trying to trick. Bargains were struck, the Paladin learned that he couldn’t solo a Black Dragon, and the Black Dragon got to save on shackles because the Paladin had one fewer hands.

Eventually, they were rescued by the demon’s holy opposite. A “minor” deity saw their plight and a few other things that the players might not know about. Being concerned with Justice, he offered them assistance so long as they swore to do as he commanded–hunt down the escape demon and contain or destroy her. Needless to say, the party immediately agreed. Even the Rogue’s soul agreed. In exchange, they all got a measure of the deity’s power to bust them out of prison, the paladin got a divine-magic replacement arm that let him bypass some of the requires for a good prestige class, and the Rogue got stuck in the body of a recently-deceased Halfling that had similar, but slightly different training.

All-in-all, the party got exactly what they wanted, I got a plot hook to carry them along, and the Rogue’s player got to deal with the fact that a Raise Dead spell wouldn’t fix him because it’d call the body’s original soul back. Reincarnate was the only way to bring him back to life that time. Now, though, the new body is his and Raise Dead will work again. Only, it is a Half-Elf and they kinda suck in 3.5, unless you’re specifically picking it for character reasons.

I like to work with my players when I can. The rules are plain enough that adjusting or tweaking things is fine with me, so long as my players are doing it because it helps them create the story they want to tell. If all they want is bigger numbers well… Those are fun, but their place is in a different campaign. I am even adapting a fun prestige class for one of my players because it is super awesome for his character’s arc AND it plays into the story I’m telling so while I might as well have scripted it. A lot of the time, the players are your partners in telling the story, so hearing them out can’t go wrong. They’re just as invested as you are, especially if they’ve been your players for two years, now.

To Single Play or to Multi Play

Despite my love for the almost entirely single-player Legend of Zelda franchise, I generally prefer multiplayer games over single-player games. My Steam account is full of single-player games I have never played or haven’t completed. I never actually finished most of my single-player console games, either. I just eventually lose interest or focus, getting distracted by some other video game or a new book, and never get back to finishing the game. If it is a multiplayer game that I’m playing with friends, I’m a lot more likely to stay interested and finish it.  There are exceptions, of course. I’ve played tons of games of Borderlands with friends and by myself, but I’ve only ever finished it once with a friend. It’s a longer game, so it is difficult to get someone to commit to the entire thing and then actually follow-through over the several sessions it’ll take to beat it.

I never finished all of the really cool extra content for Hyrule Warriors because I got bored doing the daily grind of beating thousands of enemies on my own. For the few missions I could do it, I enjoyed the multiplayer option much more. I started playing and loved Shadow of War last fall, but I never finished because Destiny 2, with its multitude of problems, came out. Destiny encourages cooperative multiplayer while Shadow of War’s multiplayer is only ever competitive.

I prefer cooperative multiplayer to competitive. Competitive games like Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers are fun, but I prefer any game where I’m working with my friends rather than against them. Halo Co-Op was my preferred way to play with my friends in high school. I never really got into League of Legends because it was so competitive. Even the cooperative aspect of being on a team with your friends or strangers got competitive because people took the game so seriously. That, plus the toxicity, drove me away. Overwatch, on the other hand, is a competitive game but it encourages a lot more cooperation than I feel League of Legends did. Even when queuing for Quickplay and playing with random strangers feels better because not everyone is toxic and most people agree to a basic level of cooperation. Some of my best cooperative moments and matches have been with strangers. All it takes there is communication and willingness to participate.

I’m not a terribly competitive person. I don’t really care about winning or losing, I just want to play well. I want to play a game skillfully and improve, not worry about who has the most kills or whether or not I’m consistently better than my friends. I get frustrated, sure, but only when I know we’re under-performing or one of my allies is deliberately messing us up. I generally won’t try to force people to cooperate with me in games, but I have little patience for people who find pleasure in throwing games or betraying their allies.

I like to improve myself. Daily blog entries here, figuring out how to add novel-writing to my schedule, and then trying to work out between work and writing is all my attempts to make myself the best me I can be. That includes being good at my chosen recreations. I like to play video games and the part of me that is what I identify as the most core part of me also wants to be good at video games. Not so I can go pro in some competitive e-sports league or so I can rule over my friends, but for my own personal satisfaction. I want to be good to see just how good I can be.