Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Monster Manual: The Straight Story

Monster Manual came out. I celebrated. Mostly I celebrated on the Internet, posting once to this blog and once to Facebook. On the eve of its release I got to use the book in a game, which was awesome. Hooray for me.

As happy as I am to have participated in the Monster Manual, in truth I was just a member of the team. Chris Perkins was the head of that team, making the creative decisions and filling in the monsters that didn't have story briefs. Chris was the one who gave out the assignments and provided all the guidance, advice, organization, and structure. It was Chris that Rob Schwalb and I reported to; it was Chris who compiled the book and put it together. If you read his DM's advice columns or watched him run D&D for celebrities, you already know he's a master storyteller with a monumental list of credits to his name. I've worked with Chris before, on Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale (among favorite monster supplements of all time), and on the Dungeon Magazine adventure, Owlbear Run, and a little bit on Beyond the Crystal Cave for D&D 4e. Chris Perkins is good-natured and patient, and has pulled me out of the fire more than once. I owe him a great deal and I love working with him.

The D&D story team compiled all the story briefs for the monsters. James Wyatt took the lead on this, polling the D&D community about how to present monsters in this edition of the game. James, Chris, Matt Sernett, and others (Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford, I believe--maybe Rodney Thompson and Peter Lee as well), wrote story briefs of what was to be important to each monster, and we used the story briefs to  write each entry. So, a lot of the really cool story developments for these monsters came from that team; my job was to organize all those good ideas and write them into an entry. I didn't get to work directly with James on Monster Manual, but we've had some great times working on D&D in the past. James hired me for my first big freelance assignment on D&D, and he was the lead designer on Madness at Gardmore Abbey, and the War of Everlasting Darkness season of D&D Encounters. He's a brilliant storyteller, a generous soul, and a good friend. His work on story made the Monster Manual a fascinating book.

After Rob and I turned our work in to Chris Perkins, it went to Scott Fitzgerald Gray and Chris Sims, who began the editing process. We've worked together in the past--Chris on Beyond the Crystal Cave, and Scott on Heroes of the Feywild--and in real life we've had remarkable conversations. In short, I think the world of these guys and they're completely and totally awesome. They've also taught me a few things over the past year: at the AFK Tavern in Redmond last May, Chris filled me in on the proper way to do abdominal exercises (sit-ups aren't all the awesome I once thought they were) and Scott's blog on story blew my fracking mind. Formidable folks, both of them.

These were the guys I worked with on Monster Manual. Before the process began, though, Mike Mearls and Jeremy Crawford laid out a vision for it (I remember Mike hashing out ideas for it a few years ago), and at the end of the process, Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins sat together in the office and went through the whole thing and put it together. I worked with Mike for my first three big D&D projects, and we had a blast. Since Mike's running the show now I don't get to work with him directly anymore, which makes me sad because I loved working with Mike way back when. On the plus side, hanging out with Mike and working with Mike are (for me) similar experiences, and at conventions we still get to hang out from time to time, so there it is.

Finally, I didn't get to work with Rodney Thompson or Peter Lee at all on this one, although they developed all those stats that make the game actually work. I keep mentioning how much I love working with everybody, and here we are again. Working on Heroes of the Feywild with Rodney was a dreamlike experience (part of that was sleep deprivation, surely) and one of my favorite projects ever--we just had fun, creating as we went. And Pete, man--Pete and I were friends from the miniatures community when Pete lived in Wisconsin and before either of us worked for D&D.

Finally and ultimately: Greg Bilsland brought me onto the project, along with Chris Perkins. Greg's the D&D producer, and so like Mike he works on a lot of higher level decisions, including bringing on freelancers. We've worked together a whole bunch over the past several years, on just about every project I've been assigned. I don't know how to accurately describe Greg's job because he has his hand in everything that happens with D&D and he makes it all work. We've been through thick and thin together and I owe Greg as much or more than anybody else.

As for my partner in crime, Rob Schwalb, I love that guy. He can write more words than anybody I know, and having the letter D assigned to him, he conquered the lion's share of this book while I sauntered behind him the whole way. He's a genuine workhorse, a kickass gentleman, and a good soul. But everybody knows this. I don't even try to write as much as Rob does because, holy crap. Seriously.

Yes, there are even more folks who worked on the Monster Manual, but these are the folks that I worked with, and whom I feel ought to be recognized for all their hard work. I've had a few days to enjoy the book's release, and I'm proud of it and happy with it, but you know, I only played one part in what was a huge, huge task. I spent several months on it, but these guys spent more. So there's the truth of it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The D&D Monster Manual (5e)

This week sees the release of the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, one of the three core books (in addition to the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide) that comprise the game.

Monster Manual was my biggest D&D assignment. Biggest in scope, profile, and words (I turned in about 80k words for this one!). My task was to write the monster entries (not mechanics) for every other letter in the book, starting with A (A, C, E, etc), while Robert J. Schwalb took the even letters: B, D, F, etc. That doesn't mean I wrote every single entry in those letters--some beasts were added later, others recategorized or moved around.

We wrote the entries using monster briefs provided by James Wyatt and the D&D story team. These briefs outlined the fundamental elements of each creature and included guidance and feedback from the community during the open playtest. For the entries I wrote, I studied the brief and then read all the previous entries for the creature, starting from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and proceeding through the 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and 4th Edition. When I could find more extensive source material, I delved into that--for instance, the Planescape setting provided the most thorough material on each type of mephit, and the Al-Qadim setting gave the most extensive information on genies. Other times, I looked to monster ecologies from old issues of the Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. As I progressed through the letters I started to view the AD&D Manual of the Planes as my "world bible."

And yet, for most readers information, information, information doesn't make a good monster entry. A good entry ought to inspire the imagination in the way it's structured, the details selected, the order in which they're presented, and in the words chosen to convey its meaning. In my opinion a good entry also knows which details to omit and leave to the imagination and the world-building sense of the storytellers (by "storytellers" I mean both the players and the DM). These are just the guidelines of storytelling; you make your points not by vomiting information but by choosing your points and making them with the best words and devices available to you. In any case, I saw my job as one of structuring the ideas, finding a dynamic connection and progression from one to the next, and then using the best words to convey those ideas, hopefully coloring it with the monster's "mood" or feel.

In some entries I got to quote myself. Monsters like the kraken, succubus/incubus, scarecrow, and yeti were creatures for which I'd previously written story-based entries for D&D books and magazines, and when the story team selected details from those entries for 5e I had the luxury of my previous notes.

In editing and development the book was refined--words that took up space describing what a monster might do in combat were often transposed into abilities in the monster's stat block. Entries for simpler monsters were at times condensed to their main points, allowing room for more art or text for bigger monsters with bigger stories (i.e. GIANTS!). Art and layout were done, quotes and notes were added in the margins.

Mike (Mearls) handed me my own copy of the book at Gen Con this year and I finally got to see it with all its beautiful art, its statistics, and its stories. I never believed my work would appear in the core books for an edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and I'm eternally grateful to Chris Perkins and Greg Bilsland for the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. I can only hope that the little story seeds sprinkled throughout these entries grow thousands of bigger, better stories in our collective imaginations over all the years to come.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Crits and Wonders

I'm playing a D&D (Next/5e) game with folks I know from my friendly local gaming store.

My first combat roll! (And my remaining hit points after failing to slay the bugbear).

Though I didn't realize it at first, the adventure we're playing is The Ruins of Undermountain, from the second edition of D&D. I'm a little sentimental about Undermountain because it's the adventure upon which I based the very first D&D campaign I ran as a Dungeon Master. In 1991 I had been playing D&D for about 9 years--since 1982--before I tried my hand at running a campaign. I was a frustrated player at the time, had already nosedived as a DM once, railroading the characters into a planned course of action, and after I'd licked my wounds I was ready to try a dungeon adventure where the choices were a bit more limited. As the players explored Undermountain I became more comfortable with running the game and eventually began to experiment with event-based adventures.

Playing Undermountain 23 years later as my first official post-release D&D experience is really neat. I have only a vague recollection of what rooms looked like, and the dangers that lay nearby.

My first combat roll of (post-release) D&D Next has come after 3 sessions. It was a natural 20 in a gentleman's duel against a bugbear. Unfortunately, that didn't kill the bugbear and its return strike dropped my character, Lord Hubren Delmarek, to -3 hit points. Lesson learned: don't duel bugbears at level 2.

I've been playing crazy with the dice so far. Rolled my character with a straight 3d6 per score. Rolled my hit points at 2nd level instead of taking the average.  I also found a Wand of Wonder (suitably fitting) and when the party was in danger I pointed it at the twisted reflections of ourselves emerging from the hall of mirrors and just happened to roll a fireball, blasting them to smithereens.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

In Medias Res

Aha! Not dead! Bet you thought you'd heard the last of The Townshend. Not so fast.

The past year has been craaaaaazy. At this time in 2013 I'd just been to Origins, picked up several board games, and was enjoying my summer, trying to figure out what was next. Earlier in 2013 I'd had a number of articles hit Dragon and Dungeon magazines:

  • Siege of Gardmore Abbey was published in Dungeon (with freaking amazing artwork by Ralph Horsley, linked above from Ralph's site).
  • Fey of the Wind and Wood came out in Dragon, featuring four short new fairy tales (I mention those because they're always my favorite part).
  • Beyond the Crystal Cave (my version with Chris Sims) came out in Dungeon.
  • Owlbear Run came out in Dungeon.
 I think I only mentioned half of those on this blog. At any rate, things seemed to be coming to a close. I wasn't sure what I was doing next. I wondered if my time designing D&D/RPGs was coming to a close. Not for any particular reason except that everything ends at some point, and it's sometimes hard to discern when that end has arrived.

At Gen Con the next month I had coffee with Chris Perkins and Greg Bilsland from Wizards of the Coast. We're friends from previous projects and I've enjoyed working with both of them several times. They said they had some work to offer me, and I said cool, and they said it was the core Monster Manual for Dungeons & Dragons, and I said cool. They said there was other work as well, and I said cool.

I went home and wrote about 80k words on that book over the next three months, and Robert J. Schwalb wrote as much or more. In the midst of all this, Steve Winter contacted me about a time-sensitive article he needed for the last issue of Dragon Magazine he was editing, on world-shaking events.

In the midst of this, I drew my 20-year campaign story to a close. That was an intensely personal experience, as it's formed the landscape of my subconscious for half my life. I had to do the article on world-shaking events as catharsis after this momentous conclusion. I was running on empty by the end of October, but managed to finish an article of which I'm extremely proud, and which was printed in the last issue of Dragon Magazine before the magazines went on hiatus (issue 430). Incidentally, Howard Lyon did the art for that article, which appeared on the cover--significant because I love his work and he's the artist who did the banderhobb and the nymphs from Monster Manual III, my first assignment. Here's what his awesome art looked like:

In the midst of this, I (separately) hosted two old friends, one visiting from Norway, the other from Vancouver. I went to my 20-year high school reunion, and on the way back was hit by a tornado while taking cover in a Starbucks. But that's another story. I made it home in one piece and shortly thereafter turned in my work.

Then I went through a meditation on the meaning of life. I tried to resolve issues with people with whom I'd had conflict. I made some new goals. I stayed home for Christmas. A close friend of 20 years moved across country. The coldest winter on record hit Chicago.

In the midst of this, my wife bought me the board game Eclipse. Even though I'm not a miniatures painter, I decided to paint all 84 ships in the base game, all 108 ships in the expansions, Ship Pack One, and another 14 ships from Rise of the Ancients, for a grand total of 206 miniature ships between the beginning of March and the beginning of April.

The ship painting thing was a mad, meditative thing I needed to do. I needed to get outside my head and do something creatively different so that I could see the creative process from a detached perspective. That's a whole other can of worms, but it was well worth it. Plus, I now have a pretty sweet-looking game--for non-painter, I mean.

Again I kind of thought maybe I was at the end of my rope, wondering which direction to go next. Then, just as the painting was finishing up I had an offer to do a big Dungeons & Dragons project for 2015. I said cool. Every minute since has been devoted to that project--I'm likewise very proud of it; hopefully others will dig it as well. When it's announced, I'll jump up and down and point at it.

Which brings me to this week.

Here we are at the release of the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons. An edition that so far feels like the game I grew up playing, with a lot of the kinks hammered out.

D&D got us through tough times. It helped us meet our friends. It inspired our imaginations. It gave us a reason to get together week after week, catch up on each others' lives, make up stories. It introduced us to strange new worlds; it took us on our own hero journeys, our own paths of self-discovery, the foundations of a personal mythology.  It exposed us to literature. I think it even showed us how to be more developed, more understanding people. That's what comes of pretending to be in someone else's shoes over and over again.

As the release of the free Basic D&D rules approaches, I think of those that will soon experience the awe and the wonder of an untethered imagination. I think of those school-age kids short on cash, looking for a diversion, an escape, a medium of expression. I believe that the social experience of playing roles is therapeutic, that it helps people cope--that the monsters and dragons and conflicts of games like Dungeons & Dragons are representative of the problems we face in real life and that by conquering them in our imagination, we learn to conquer them in real life (for a comic, yet surprisingly genuine, take on this check out the I.T. Crowd episode, "Jen the Fredo").

Dungeons & Dragons can't feed the hungry or heal the sick.
But it's fed countless hungry souls and mended torn-up hearts.

One seldom knows the impact of one's work. As this new edition of Dungeons & Dragons is released over the coming year, I can only hope that my small contributions to the game play a role in fulfilling people just as I was fulfilled.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ribbon Drive, by Joe McDaldno

I've played Joe Mcdaldno's game excellent road trip RPG, Ribbon Drive, three times now and I feel that it's a great example of a role-playing game that breaks new ground while exploring potentially deep and meaningful experiences on the part of the players. I wanted to share a few of the insights we had while playing this game, in hopes that others will try it and benefit from our experience.

Ribbon Drive is a game about catharsis through a journey, set to a mix tape (in modern times, multiple playlists). If you've seen the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, it's something like that, but you could argue that it can have as much in common with The Muppet Movie, if your game goes a little cockeyed (as road trips often do).

How to Play

The game's mechanic is a musical playlist, which should have a theme and a name, and everybody brings one. It's a great (er, devious) way to get your friends to listen to (and enjoy through the act of engaging with it in play) your music. 

When you put together your playlist, you're probably aiming to include music that's personal to you right now, in real life. You're entering the game with something on your mind that you're looking to explore through the point of view of a character.

- The first song of the first playlist determines the nature of the journey, some impressions of the characters, how they know each other, and the journey's destination. All of this is gleaned from the first song's lyrics of the impressions it leaves on the players.

- The second song of the first playlist determines the characters' qualities (their "traits") and their goals (their "futures"). The characters aren't allowed to talk about anything in the future outside of the two futures they choose.* This is a very important rule because it focuses the game on what's meaningful to the characters--and probably to you, the player, if Ribbon Drive is an exploratory vehicle for you.

- Players take turns framing scenes, letting the music guide them. They use their traits to surpass obstacles, but when obstacles and character traits don't match up, the characters take a detour, the playlist switches to the next player's playlist, and the journey takes on a new tone.

- The game ends after all the players but one have resolved one of their goals ("futures"). The remaining character is the one that has come to terms with his or her futures so that those goals cease to matter in light of the events that have encompassed his or her companions. This remaining character is declared the protagonist. A closing scene usually ends the game after this.

*It's important to remember to refer back to your goals ("futures") so that the game doesn't wander. If the focus of the game wanders, the structure breaks down and the story and its meaning start to get murky. Remember: your character's two futures are his or her goals--one generally long term and one generally short term--and the yearning and fear and desire for these things is what the game is ABOUT. The road is the underworld where those yearnings and fears are explored. I'm harping on this because it's very easy to forget. If you're ever lost in a scene, or at a loss for something to say, go back to your character's goals (futures) and use the tone of the music playing in the present moment to inspire you.

The other advice I will give anyone about to play Ribbon Drive is this: make no plans.

The first game of Ribbon Drive I played was too structured. The players had concrete ideas about what they wanted the trip to be about, and so we floundered from scene to scene, clawed our way toward that preordained thing. It was hard. The second game, however, was very different.

Ribbon Drive stresses that you're to take your cues from the song that's playing. That means you conduct your scenes to reflect the mood and rhythm of that song, and you change the tone of the scene as the music changes.

The music will surprise you in the way that it seems to comment on your characters and their situations--if you're listening to it. You'll hear lyrics that seem to come at the perfect time and inform the moment and your entire emotional state. It's like that time when you're in a D&D game and the guy playing the fighter charges into the orc horde at the exact moment that Anvil of Crom from the Conan the Barbarian score starts playing over your speakers.

Ribbon Drive is like that except all the time. You're looking for those moments and you're actively changing your narrative depending on what's playing. You're listening to the music and making choices based on how it makes you feel or certain lyrics that you overhear. That's the beauty of the thing. It's all about the moment.

Why This Game is Great

Ribbon Drive is great for a multitude of reasons, but here are a few:

- The more thought and meaning the players invest, the more thought and meaning they'll derive from the experience. That's true of any RPG, but Ribbon Drive is focused on resolving the personal issues at the characters' cores, and all the characters change due to the experience of their journey. That's the fundamental essence at the heart of story.

- The choice of a playlist is a personal one. Every game is very different because every game runs on a different playlist. Every playlist was inspired from a different (or at least evolving) emotional place.

- The game is 24 pages long, concise, and well-written. The whole experience plays easily within a single evening.

- The core mechanic of the game is the "mix tape," the music playlist. Which is an awesome idea in the first place.

- By listening to the other players' music, you may learn something about them. You may learn something about yourself. You may gain an appreciation for music you'd never heard before or music you never liked before; you may find yourself understanding it in a new context or appreciating it because of the moment when it played during the game, forever linking a song to the imagined moment that you lived within the game.

- You can purchase Ribbon Drive not just with cash but by doing good deeds.

I could heap more praise on Ribbon Drive, but don't take my word for it--get a copy of the game and play it yourself. Make your own memories. Discover those sublime moments from the road. You can even make your journey across the stars a la Firefly or a horror scenario

Ribbon Drive is one of my favorite role-playing games, and one I'm always looking forward to playing, again and again and again. Every time I've played this game, the people I've played with have brought something else to it--a different energy, a different perspective, a different frame of mind. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing.

My past playlists

American Bucket List
   (a wistful reminiscence made as summer faded and fall began and big changes were in the air)
Slow Deep Breaths
  (created in the aftermath of having narrowly survived a tornado)

Rage Kids
  (created in frustration while coping with change)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Becoming, by Brian Engard

Becoming is one of the most fascinating games I've played in a while. When I picked it up with the Indie Cornucopia Bundle of Holding in November, the red and black art caught my eye and the idea of the hero journey and sacrifice built into the game intrigued me. The light 121 pages rulebook sealed the deal--it was a game I could read quickly and explain easily.

How to Play

- In Becoming, there is one PC and three DMs.
- The DMs take turns running the game. The DMs are the Fates.
- The game is 9 scenes long, and each Fate alternates scenes, so each runs 3 scenes total.
- When a Fate isn't running the scene, the Fate embodies/inhabits an NPC in the scene.  
- Each Fate has an agenda and pushes that agenda in the scene, whether narrating or playing an NPC.
- When the Fate running the scene introduces the main conflict of the scene, the hero negotiates with the other 2 Fates. Those Fates offer the hero support against the conflict... for a price. The hero must sacrifice his or her strengths, virtues, or allies. If the hero refuses, those Fates lend their dice against the hero. Dice are rolled, and the winner (the hero or the narrating Fate) decides what happens.
- The game goes on and the hero sacrifices much of what he or she once held dear.
- The Fates gain points for the hero's sacrifices, and the hero gains points for succeeding in conflicts.
- At the end of the game, the player with the most points narrates what happens. The Fates bend the ending toward their particular agendas.

Initial Skepticism

I was at first as skeptical as I was excited about Becoming. I like not knowing what happens in an RPG and allowing for lots of flexibility and player freedom, so I initially had a tough time embracing Becoming's predetermined scene structure--even if the rules do offer a brief word of encouragement to go off book if need be. We've all had the misfortune to play RPGs in which the structure of the game is so constrained that the game is tedious from the get-go. Same problem when the structure's too loose.

That said, the scenes in Becoming's scenarios are typical of their genres, so they're the kinds of scenes that naturally tend to appear in the story whether you planned them or not. We're talking archetypal stuff here--the threads that have woven the tapestries of our own legends for time out of mind. In actual play I've found that Becoming's scene structure works perfectly well and have had no problem following the general outlines of the scenes just as they appear. The scenes as written are like the kinds of notes I might write myself in preparation for a D&D adventure--a few elements and possibilities for things that may happen. They're focused in the way a Fiasco playset is focused. After playing the first session of the game, I stopped worrying.

Why This Game is Great

In Becoming, the structure of play is very defined. The hero has a goal and the Fates embody their own goals; they embody their goals in the people the hero meets, in the voices of the hero's enemies as well as his or her allies. They embody their goals in the setting and atmosphere as each Fate takes a turn at narration.

Because the structure is so defined, your goals as a role-player are focused. While the overall goal is to tell a good story, the "win conditions" drive the Fates to compete to create clever conflicts for the hero, and to strike bargains with the hero that are too sweet to decline. It's not always easy to figure out how your Fate plays a role in the present scene, but part of the fun is discovering that brilliant connection, or developing an NPC so that he or she reflects the perspective of your Fate.

Each of the scenarios in the Becoming book is a completely different genre (or one genre, if Joseph Campbell's hero journey is that genre). There's a medieval setting, a galactic voyage, a horror scenario, a zombie apocalypse, and even a werewolf scenario and a star-crossed lovers variant. We're playing Exodus, the galactic voyage in which the hero is humanity's last hope for finding a habitable world.

In Exodus, I'm playing a Fate: Duty. Our hero is an idealist guided by her faith in God, and she treats her crew as family. It's my job to present her with challenges that put her in positions where her faith gets in the way of her job, or where her job gets in the way of her family, or where her job gets in the way of her faith. At the beginning of the game, the group creates the hero by selecting the hero's qualities from a list; the hero's player gets to pick 3 qualities, while the Fates choose 2 apiece. This way, the hero is the creation of the group, and the Fates choose aspects they hope to exploit. For instance, I chose Abel, the career soldier, from the list because I felt that a career soldier would be a good way to remind the hero of her duty (and boy has it ever been).

Even in playing NPCs, the Fates are finding characters we love, and we're finding complexity within these characters. Abel the career soldier, for instance, doesn't believe anything the captain believes, and at this point in the game he doesn't even respect her views. BUT Abel is the embodiment of duty, and so while I (the Fate) am trying to subvert the hero and eventually have my way with the story, Abel sticks by the captain's side, her staunchest ally. While playing Abel as an NPC, I've used him to remind the captain of her duty and frittered away little pieces of her soul as Abel does the dirty work--even killing and torture--to keep a mutinous ship under command. So while he doesn't believe in her, he's on her side all the way, and it's costing her soul. Our game is full of these nuanced characters, played by the other Fates.

How We Are Playing

In our game the captain's player, Megan, hasn't read the scenario. Thus, this is very much like a traditional D&D adventure where the DM has notes on possible scenes and the player is reacting to them. Every scene is a surprise for her. It's surprising for us to see how well it works.

Since Duty is assigned the first scene in Exodus, I began it like I'd begin any game I was DMing. I went for a slow build, describing the blinking lights in the cockpit, the slow, quiet approach to the Vertigo--the last space station at the edge of unknown space. I tried to set the scene with details and just let scenes play out. Sometimes several things happened before we got to the threat--and that was great too.

All the scenes have followed suit, and what I had thought was meant to be a one-shot RPG has become a measured, intense role-playing experience built on a solid structure that frees us to improvise toward concrete objectives. Every week we've had about enough time to play 3 scenes. This makes for a very natural three-act structure, a very natural beginning, middle, and end. In the last session of the first night, the captain failed miserably and lost command of the crew--the first major problem she'd encountered. At the end of the second session the captain ended a mutiny with blood on her hands. The crew are no longer family; God is no longer on her side; the crew are employees at best, and the captain has been forced to compromise her principles repeatedly to keep control.

We'll finish up this week, but I've found myself thinking about the game all week when I'm not playing it, wondering how it will end up, what will become of the characters. That's the best kind of experience, I think.

Becoming is a game about the hard choices and sacrifices we choose to make on our hero's journey. There's a lot to think about within the context of the game. It's not a game that lets you off easy-- without making you think about what you've done, what you might have done, what you should have done, what you need to do. Stories tell us what our lives are about, and Becoming gives us the tools to tell some compelling stories.

This game delivers the goods. Can't wait to see how it ends.


Robert Ryder
Greg Inda
Paris Green
Steve Townshend (hey, that's me)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy 40th, Dungeons & Dragons

For better or for worse, Dungeons & Dragons has influenced my life for more than 30 of its 40-year lifespan.  I first played the game when I was around seven years old, down in the basement of my grandparents' house, with my aunt (who introduced us to the game) and my 2 older cousins. This was 1982, and we were playing with the "blue box." The adventure was B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, and my character was Luke Skywalker, human fighter.

When we arrived at my grandparents' house that day, my cousins were (literally) jumping up and down.
"Steven! Steven!" they said, "Aunt Kim's got this great new game called Dungeons & Dragons! Do you wanna play?"

I was reluctant at first. I had my Darth Vader case in hand and more than anything I had anticipated some adventures with action figures.They agreed that we could play Star Wars later on, but I don't think we ever got to that. Dungeons & Dragons was far too engrossing. And it filled that same niche as playing with action figures, only with a structure of play. A way to succeed and get better. It was like playing a board game except your pieces could talk to each other, or bend the rules to do anything you could possibly imagine.

The Early Years
When I think back on those early days, I remember experiencing the magic and wonder of the unknown. I remember gazing for hours at the art. Regardless whether it was Errol Otus's weird color illustrations or David Allen Trampier's or Jeff Dee's black and white illustrations, they enthralled me. I didn't know what lay between the covers of most D&D books--I never had any ambitions apart from being a player, immersing in strange and fantastic worlds, meeting interesting characters and creatures who became my friends and enemies. I remember the musty smell of the basements we played in, doing multiplication and division longhand in order to calculate our experience points and treasure--even as we were learning those skills in elementary school. I remember devouring novels just to get a taste of those strange lands in between the times when I'd get to meet up with my cousin and play the game again. He lived in Minnesota and I lived in Michigan, and I wasn't allowed to own the game until I reached the magical "recommended age" of 10, printed on the Dungeons & Dragons box cover. So I played D&D with the older kids on the back of the bus, or at friends' houses after school. God, I loved it more than anything (my idols Han Solo and Indiana Jones were close contenders).

Close Companions
Like many others, Dungeons & Dragons was the way I met my best friends. The reason for this is that D&D was a group social activity that required a regular meetup and a shared group activity where the point was for the participants to make something together. That's not the way we thought of it--nothing so lofty as that--we were there to experience exciting adventures. But whether by design or happy accident, the way Dungeons & Dragons worked was that a group of people came together and made things up. And because we wanted to know what happened next in the story, or we wanted to beat the bad guys or gain the magical treasures, we continued to gather, and in gathering we did what friends do: we shared our joys and sorrows, our dreams, ambitions, regrets, our secret crushes, our romance woes. In the process we put on masks of character and lived double lives; we simultaneously related to one another in two realities: the one where we were hanging out as friends, and the imaginary world in which our alter egos existed.

The Dreamers
Even so, Dungeons & Dragons wasn't exactly a cool thing to do. It was a sort of secret handshake, a thing you didn't flaunt because you didn't want girls to know you were a loser, or influential people to think you were a weirdo. You talked about it with people you suspected were in the know. Fellow dreamers and fantasists, should you be so lucky to find them. You didn't want to be that guy who alienated everybody in the room, droning on and on about your imaginary character. You knew that guy, and sometimes caught yourself being him in polite company.

I came out of the closet with D&D when I was 26 years old. This came from a fearless honesty (er, Meisner training) I was going through at the time, but in retrospect it was also the time that Peter Jackson's film version of The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in theaters, putting dwarves, orcs, hobbits, and elves in common parlance. To my great surprise, I soon learned that D&D players existed in the upper echelons of theaters and other places I was striving to succeed. This "secret handshake" made it easy to communicate with those folks, to find common ground, and succeed. We spoke the same language.

by Steve Townshend
I never thought I'd grow up to work on Dungeons & Dragons. It was a side ambition. A secondary thing I wouldn't have minded doing if I wasn't acting. That changed when I put acting aside to focus on writing. I tried to write for D&D, and apart from a few articles spread over the years, I failed. I failed over and over and over again. That all changed in 2009 when James Wyatt gave me a trial freelance assignment under Mike Mearls, my favorite D&D writer.

The last 5 years have been an incredible experience, the fulfillment of a lifelong love. It was enough that Dungeons & Dragons gave me amazing experiences and good friends, but having a hand in writing and influencing the game has meant more than I can possibly express. Dungeons & Dragons gave me the opportunity to succeed at something I'd loved practically all my life.

For years I said, "If I were in charge of D&D, this is what I'd do..." and somehow I got to do it.
I got to do it in Monster Manual 3 and Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. In Demonomicon.In Madness at Gardmore Abbey and Siege of Gardmore Abbey, in Owlbear Run, Beyond the Crystal Cave, and the War of Everlasting Darkness. It's there in the ecologies of the Scarecrow, Succubus, and Banderhobb. I got to do it in Heroes of the Feywild and The Wee Fey and all the other pieces I wrote for Dragon and Dungeon Magazines. I got to do it in the core Monster Manual for the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons.

Debts of Gratitude
It seems strange and unlikely that I was given these opportunities. I owe a great debt of gratitude to James Wyatt and Mike Mearls, who gave me a shot and showed me the ropes. Chris Perkins picked me up and showed me the light whenever I grew weary or burned out or couldn't see the forest for the trees. I owe Greg Bilsland for shepherding me through the business of the work. I owe Rodney Thompson for opening the door to endless possibility. I owe Steve Winter for inspiration, friendship, and leading by example. I owe Rich Baker for great ideas and great conversation. I owe Kim Mohan for being Gandalf to my Frodo, for lack of a better metaphor. And Stan! and Chris Sims and Chris Thommason and Scott Fitzgerald Gray and Robert Schwalb and Miranda Horner and Jennifer Clarke Wilkes and Brian and Matt James and Sterling Hershey and Claudio Pozas and Creighton Broadhurst and Jeremy Crawford and Bart Carroll and Robin Laws. I owe Peter Lee and Chris Tulach and Trevor Kidd for being good friends. I owe Bill Slavicsek and Andy Collins for a job interview that got me a freelance job 2 years later. I owe Steve Schubert for being a friend and an inspiration. I owe Bruce Cordell and Monte Cook for being awesome; we didn't get to work together, but awesome is as awesome does. I owe Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson for starting the fire, all the others who carried the torch--from Tracy Hickman to Ed Greenwood to William W. Connors, who I never met, but boy did I love his stuff.

I'm sure I've forgotten someone. :-(

And on and on...
My relationship with D&D is almost 32 years old. It's a tempered passion, a mature bond that flares and cools as the years go by. Sometimes we don't speak for a time, but absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when we get together again it's like no time has passed. The passion and wonder return and we go on more adventures together. This is the way it's always been, this is the way it will always be. D&D and I have other friends and other interests. Our time apart is essential for enjoying our time together. That's part of what makes a healthy relationship. Whenever we get back together, our stories are richer for what we've learned in the time away.

In October I drew a close to a story I've been telling on and off for 20 years. That's 2/3 of the time I've played the game, and half of D&D's lifespan (not to mention my own). Things are quiet now that the new edition of the game is in the works and the magazines are on hiatus. An old friend whom I've played games with for 21 years is moving across the country. It's time to explore other worlds for a while, to learn new ways of telling stories and playing games. The next time D&D and I get together, D&D will have a few new ways to play and I'll have a new set of story ideas and game perspectives.

We're going to have fantastic adventures.