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.

Players

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

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Happy 40th, Dungeons & Dragons

Beginnings
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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

My Gaming Life

I've played some exciting games lately.

I would go so far as to say that over the past month I've had some of the richest gaming experiences of my entire life.

Apocalypse World: We finished an Apocalypse World game that we began in June. It was a small, intimate group of close friends, and we all pushed to make risky choices. Post-deluge Earth, on the bayou. Our characters were emotional wrecks, and those emotions propelled the game forward. The game ended in a beautiful, poetic tragedy and was one of the most fulfilling games I've played.

I get a little angsty when people worship a system, "Oh it's the system that makes that happen," I disagree with that; it's always the players and the way they use their imaginations; I've played plenty of conscious-altering D&D games in my life; loads of them. That said, Vincent Baker's Apocalypse World gets out of the way and pushes character interaction and choice forward by emphasizing and rewarding those elements.

D&D: I ended a 20-year campaign (coincidentally) on the day it began in 1993. One of the players (Lowell Kempf) was there all 20 years, and is about to move across the country. The rest of the players had played for 10 years apiece. This ties up a mythology I'd been building for more than half my life, what I used to call the landscape of my subconscious. In some ways it's tough to leave, in other ways a relief that we drew the story to a conclusion. This was the workshop in which I taught myself all about story games. It was a beautiful thing. I will miss it.

Dungeon World: To be fair, I ended the D&D campaign using Dungeon World. I'm pressed for time before Lowell leaves and I needed action to happen very quickly. In the end, only their choices mattered, not what they fought or the rolls they made. DW provided an active streamlined experience.

I've begun a second Dungeon World game as an experiment to convert and run old modules. Starting from the beginning has been a different (and wonderful) experience. The world building thus far has been rich, dark, and Conan-esque. We started with I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, by David Cook. Tomorrow I'm starting a conversion of B4: The Lost City, by Tom Moldvay.

Unrelated: I briefly met one of Dungeon World's designers, Adam Koebel, at the Diana Jones Awards at Gen Con. Nice guy.

Psi*Run: I played Psi*Run, by Meguey Baker, at Gen Con at Games on Demand (it's where you go to play indie RPGs). In Psi*Run you're essentially X-men-type-mutants on the run from something. What you're on the run from, who you are, etc... that's all stuff you figure out in play. There were some amazing story acrobatics that happened near the end, justifying my character (who I had thought was the hero) into a demented madman, the villain of the tale. It made complete sense and was glorious.

The Quiet Year: My friend Greg picked up The Quiet Year on a whim at Gen Con. The Quiet Year is a game by Joe Mcdaldno. It's a post-apocalyptic game where you take turns making choices and drawing those choices on a map, which every player adds to on his or her turn. There's a deck of 52 cards, one for each week of the year. You're overseeing a small piece of civilization with 1 quiet year between the apocalypse and when the Frost Shepherds come. What those are is up to you--but that's largely irrelevant. The game plays in about 4 hours and is a blast. I ordered my own copy and when I pulled the cards out of the box I saw an ad for another game by Joe Mcdaldno... which I ordered immediately. That game is called...

Ribbon Drive: Ribbon Drive is a game about a road trip, which uses (actual) playlists as the game mechanic. I thought this was such a crazy good idea--and I loved The Quiet Year so much--that I bought it right away and I. Cannot. Wait. To. Play. Which may happen this week. In Ribbon Drive, you're characters working out your issues over the course of a road trip. Each player brings a playlist (about 45 mins) and the lyrics to the first 2 songs on that list. Characters and reasons for the journey are determined from those lyrics and the first two songs. At points where the road trip takes a detour, the playlist switches and there's a new tone for the journey. This is what my Ribbon Drive Playlist will look like. It's pretty subdued.



Joe Mcdaldno's games appeal to me because they're cleanly written, they're meaningful, and they're not complex. They're easily-accessible experiences, but they're also deep experiences. Check out his site, Buried without Ceremony. One of my improv mentors at iO used to call improvisation "tissue paper art." Here for a the span of a moment. That's kind of the idea behind Buried without Ceremony.

I picked up a lot of fantastic board games this summer, all of which are worthy of high praise. To name a few: Village, Founding Fathers, Viva Java, Palazzo, Kingdom Builder.

Games are doing it for me right now.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Viva Java: My Favorite Large Group Game


It happens all the time: your friends all want to come over and play games, but the games you have only play up to 4 or 5. So you're stuck playing party games like Apples to Apples, or maybe you get in a few rounds of Tsuro, Slide 5, or if you're lucky, 7 Wonders.

The problem is, you want to play a board game that employs fun mechanics and offers a level of strategic thinking. Something substantial and interesting rather than light, luck-based, or arbitrary. You also don't want to wait 7 turns until the game comes back around to you.

This is why you need to buy Viva Java.

I discovered the game this summer at Origins 2013. It was near the end of the convention and I'd already picked up more games than I wanted to bring home: 2 random "free" games from the Columbus Area Board Gaming Society hall (Mammoth Hunters and Palazzo); I'd picked up Kingdom Builder because it came with a free expansion at Origins (and is a great game); I'd purchased Quicksilver because it's fun and the designers are wonderful people; and Founding Fathers engaged my strategic thinking so I had to have that one too. Loaded up with games, I felt a little fatigued when on the second to last day of the con I discovered that there was an aesthetically beautiful game all about making coffee on display in the exhibit hall.

The theme alone was enough to get my attention, but the components really drew me in. The components are rendered in earthy colors--lots of browns, reds, greens, yellows. There are slates illustrated with various coffee brand logos and little colored coffee beans. The wood pieces are well sculpted, and the cardstock thick and durable. Everything about the game was beautiful.

What further drew me in was that the game claimed to play up to 8. Which made me both hopeful and cautious. Hopeful because it meant I'd no longer have to play Apples to Apples (I no longer have much fun with the arbitrariness of that game, but my wife won't let me sell it). Cautious because I wasn't sure how well it would play. The very last thing I wanted was to bring home a beautiful game that no one ever cared to play.

The game's designer, T.C. Petty, explained the rules of the game to me, and because I was feeling doubly cautious I read the rulebook. And then I asked him to explain the rules again the following day. He patiently walked through the game with me, so I purchased the game and decided to give it a shot.

The first time we played Viva Java we played with 7. I figured we might as well jump right in.

How You Play: It's pretty basic. You do 3 things on your turn. That's it. Just 3.
1) Put your piece on the board and do the thing in the space where you put it.
2) Decide whether to earn points now or adjust your game abilities to earn more/better points
3) Score, set up for the next round

Obviously there's a lot more to the game than that. All the locations on the game map have different abilities tied to them. Some give bonuses and others give penalties, but each comes with a bean (of a color you might want) so there's strategic decision making involved. And after you put your piece on the board/world map you'll form a temporary team comprised of your neighbors on said map, and the team votes on whether to go for points now (make a coffee blend) or adjust strategy (research). And then there's the research track, which consists of several different abilities that allow you to break the game in some way; you're unlikely to get them all, so you have to choose which ones you want and how many points to spend on each. There's actually a significant level of strategy involved.

Why It's the Best Group Game Ever: Viva Java is the best large group board game ever because everyone is always engaged. There's no sitting around waiting (and waiting) for your next turn. Even with 8 players. So how does that work, exactly?

1) During the first phase of a turn, each player simply decides where to put their single piece. That decision will be heavily influenced based on what beans you want, what positive or negative abilities you're trying to gain/avoid, and what spaces are available after the other players have made their moves. The point is, it's only 1 action, it resolves instantaneously, and after everyone places their one piece, you move on to phase 2, where you decide whether to get points or adjust your game abilities.

2) There is a social aspect, but it's Catan-like, and it happens independently of what the majority of the players are doing. By Catan-like, I mean that it's like trading in Settlers of Catan in that you're working with the other players to get what you want (i.e. whether it's better for you to blend or research, and if you're blending, whether it's better for you to be doing most of the in-game work or someone else). The social aspect isn't a party game where you have to do charades or draw pictures; it isn't arbitrary or luck-based and doesn't rely on abilities you have outside the game. 

All the players are doing the second phase of their turn simultaneously. Researchers adjust their boards independently of those who are blending. If there are 2 separate teams blending, they act independently of one another. What this means is that in the second phase of the turn, a whole bunch of stuff happens at once with an absolute minimum of waiting around. Everyone does their thing at the same time.

3) If your players are cool (and every group I've played with has been), after the round is scored, everyone just sort of falls into setting up the board for the next round.

But I Just Wanted To...: Another reason Viva Java rocks is that it always seems to end just before you have completed your master plan for total awesomeness and coffee domination. The game leaves you wanting more, and ends long before it would begin to drag. The ending conditions are:
- Someone gets 21 points
- All the coffee slates are gone
- Someone fills up every point on their research track

Most of the time, someone gets 21 points, but we've also run out of coffee slates before. We've never had someone fill up their research track.

Variants and Expansions: Another totally awesome aspect of this game is that it comes with a number of components that can be added or subtracted from the game as you choose. Rather than wait a year or more to get a micro expansion for the game, the base game comes with alternate rules and pieces from the start, to customize as you see fit. There's also an Intern expansion that allows you to play a 3 or 4 player game, which is very different from the 5-8 player game, but I enjoyed it very much. The 3-4 player game with the interns requires even more strategy because you need the interns to blend, but the interns give you both bonuses and penalties--so there are significant choices involved. You may wish to blend by yourself (if you have the beans for it), and that calls for another level of strategy.

Viva Java is a game I want to play over and over again with large, or even small, groups. I'm engaged by the strategy and the theme and by the game's fluid play. It can be a challenge to teach a game like 7 Wonders (new players wonder what all those symbols actually mean), but it only takes a couple quick turns to get into the swing of Viva Java. Check out the complete rules and other images of the game on the Dice Hate Me web site.