Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Play is the Thing

For all the joy I got from nearly ten years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, there were some things about it that annoyed me. It didn’t have to be so – I could surely have made changes to various factors to fix some of these things, but they were there nonetheless. A big one for me was the sheer volume of work that I tended to put into my game. I wanted to have as much detail as possible about the characters, locations and situations that my players were likely to encounter. This was in large part because I don’t think as well on my feet as I do when I’ve got time to consider all the variables and select those that make for the best, most entertaining story. So preparation to run a game, for me, involved hours and hours of researching spells and magic items, creating characters and giving them logical, interesting backgrounds. And then placing those items and characters into interesting cities, towns, and ruined labyrinths, all with detailed maps, unique inhabitants, and a thorough inventory of miscellaneous items as well as bona fide treasure.

The next thing that confounded me was the running of the game, itself. There was always so much to keep track of and, again, I find I’m not as good at execution of a detailed story when I have to perform it live as I would be if I had time to stop and consider each moment of action carefully. So our games were often much longer than they needed to be because of the amount of dice-rolling and keeping track of armies of enemy combatants, and all the while I’m forgetting that some of those enemies have special abilities or would prefer to retreat rather than fight to the death. I tried to compensate with massive organizational charts and it worked to a point, but it meant even more prep work ahead of time and it still caused things like combat to drag out.

Here’s a good example – my players had found themselves in a dark land that was populated largely by undead of various types. In fact, one of the players had been turned into a vampire and was attempting to find a cure before it took over his mind completely. This dark land was ruled by a powerful undead creature – a wizard of such tremendous knowledge and arrogance that he had performed certain rites that ended his mortal life and instead turned him into a being of death and unimaginable magical ability. He was a lich. This lich was particularly difficult to kill, in part because he had cast enchantments upon himself that automatically took effect as his body was damaged in combat. This lich commanded a horde of undead minions such as skeletons, zombies, ghouls, ghasts, wights and wraiths, and drove a chariot pulled by hell steeds of some sort.

So when my players engaged this lich in combat, I was responsible for managing the lich’s impressive array of magical spells which the lich, being fairly brilliant (much smarter than I’ll ever be, I’m afraid), was expected to use in a thoughtful and creative fashion. I also had to roll the dice for all of the undead minions, for his horses, for the lich’s physical attacks, and for any friendly non-player characters who were helping the players. Also, anytime the players used magical attacks on any of those enemies, I had to roll dice to see whether the attacks worked or not. Lastly, I had to keep track of all attacks on the undead horde, checking to see whether or not they were struck and, if they were, whether or not it destroyed them. In the case of the Lich, I needed to track his health and, should it reach certain points, I had to enact the spells that he had protecting himself from attack.

On top of all that, it was my job to be aware of all of these figures’ relative positions to each other, which I believe I tracked on a hand-drawn map of the battlefield. Each combat round, I had to update all of the unit positions, roll initiative for every unit I controlled, determine how each of the units I controlled would act (attack, retreat, cast a spell, swing a sword, etc.), and then resolve every combat-related calculation for melee attacks, magical attacks, saving throws, and remaining health. It was a flipping nightmare.

And related to several of the above, I had to write up detailed descriptions of the people, places and items my characters encountered. I had previously mentioned Paul Baker, one of the other DMs for my group. Paul had a gift – he was a very talented artist. When Paul wanted his players to encounter an ancient temple to a forgotten god, he wrote up a brief description, then he drew a picture of your characters all standing there looking at the temple he wanted you to see. ‘Nuff said, so to speak. I literally have difficulty drawing decent stick figures, much less anything more detailed. Thus I had to paint all of my pictures with words. And words and words and more words. It took hours to write up all of the descriptions, and quite a bit of time for me to read those descriptions back to my players and let them think about what they’d heard.

Lastly, because of the time constraints and the fact that not everybody plays D&D, I eventually found myself without ample players. Some of it was a matter of people, myself included, growing up and no longer having hours and hours to spend playing. I certainly was finding it hard to come up with the time I’d need to create these elaborate adventures. But finding high quality players who knew the game, shared my playing style and were a good fit socially wasn’t easy, and eventually things just sort of fell apart. The game was over.

Now, I acknowledge that some of these issues didn’t have to be game-enders. There are pre-made adventures called modules that you can buy, read, and use with your players – such that I didn’t truly have to spend so much time creating my own content from scratch. The problem there was two-fold: 1) my players and I had a certain expectation about our adventures together, and the level of customization and storycrafting they’d come to expect was nearly impossible to replicate with modules. My players were used to playing their characters as if they were real people, and I wrote adventures that involved the lives, histories, and values of those people. Also, 2) using the modules still involved a fair amount of prep, and there was no guarantee that the players would stick to the plot devices and adventure hooks that the module provided. If they decided to go off in the opposite direction, my choices as DM were either to bring them back around using the carrot, the stick or both, or to abandon the module and pull out a different one that better accommodated their preferences. Granted, this could be a problem with custom-crafted adventures, too, but since they were so tightly intertwined with the characters I could be reasonably sure that they wouldn’t just elect to wander off somewhere else.

But what I really wanted was technology. I wanted a program that would let me create maps that were as nice as the ones I drew by hand (or nicer) but were easier to modify, to print in bits and pieces (to give to the players so they could only see the parts they knew about), and to whip up quickly. I wanted software that let me pass secret notes back and forth with the players, so that a character who noticed something the others didn’t had to decide whether to mention it to the rest of the group or not (and what to tell them – which often had a big impact on how they reacted and wasn’t always handled the way I’d have handled it as DM if I just announced it to the whole party, a la “Hey all, Dirk the Dwarf notices that the walls of this dungeon seem to be unusually wet.” Instead, I’d just pass a note to Dirk’s player, who could investigate, tell the group, or decide to ignore it completely.). I wanted software to keep track of all of the characters and even roll some of the dice for me when we were having huge battles. Sadly, I never found any such software while I was playing, and still haven’t really seen it.

Which isn’t to say that technology isn’t finally catching up. Behold: Dungeons & Dragons on the Microsoft Surface. The Surface is a Microsoft invention – a touchscreen video monitor built into the top of a table. It’s just being used to demonstrate certain concept technologies at this point – it’s just a prototype – but one of those concepts comes thanks to some Carnegie Mellon University students who used the Surface to play D&D. It’s still just an idea at this point – they’ve mocked up a video demo you can watch at that link, but not much else. Still, THAT would be moving in the direction of the kind of integrated experience I had in mind when I stopped playing ten years ago.

Next, some of the Google Wave beta-testers have found that one of the (relatively few) things that Google Wave is good for is playing D&D. It’s likely that there’s other software out there already that would help do some of the things I want to do – remember, I gave up trying to find the right tools a decade ago when I discovered I no longer had players nor time to devote to the game – but it’s encouraging to see both an integrated computer with an awesome display for what had often been called “tabletop” role-playing games, along with some software that could help put the gaming experience onto that surface (pun intended). Granted, Microsoft and Google aren’t exactly partners, but if somebody can pull the right tools together, it wouldn’t be mandatory that the tools’ manufacturers actually like each other.

Finally, and in part because I don’t have anywhere else more elegant to put it, I give you the “beverage of dragonslayers” – Jones Soda’s Dungeons & Dragons lines of custom colas. These are the same guys who like to sell things like “green-bean casserole” flavored sodas for the holidays so I can’t promise you’ll actually like the taste, but just being able to crack open an Eldritch Blast soda while gaming is pretty much worth the price of admission no matter how foul it probably tastes.

So that’s my D&D experience to date, in short anyway. I’ve got the newest set of books and I’m in the process of growing a new batch of potential players. When they’re old enough maybe we’ll spend a summer immersing ourselves in the game, assuming they’re interested. Perhaps it will give them as many hours of enjoyment as it’s given me, or perhaps I’ll never really figure out how the 4th-edition rules work (one read-through of the Players Handbook was definitely not enough). Either way, I’ll have cherished memories of heroic warriors and villainous mages, lost cities and ancient treasures, lithe elves and vicious dragons and that’s worth a lot right there.

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