Dungeons & Dragons : Meetings & Retreats

Image result for awful meeting

In part because my last post was about suicide, and I kind of want to push that baby down the feed a step, I’m breaking from my usual pattern of uploading posts on Fridays to post about something that has become more and more clear to me: being a good DM, or GM or ST or whatever, is an incredibly useful skill. (I’ll use GM from here, as it is the term in widest use)

My sister goes to a lot of meetings. She’s been in higher education for a long time now, and is now in higher education administration, which means meetings galore. Her complaints about these meetings make frequent appearances on her Facebook feed, and then comes the chorus of agreement from others, in academia or related white-collar fields, who have similarly bad experiences in meetings.

I’ll say it – I give good meeting. I don’t love meetings and I understand why no one else loves them either, and in part because of this knowledge, I run pretty damn good meetings. In fact, I have realized that running good meetings (or good discussion groups or similar things) is one of my few features. I am currently the President of the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association and the leader of the Phoenixville Area Refugee Initiative solely because I am good at running meetings. (I have literally no other leadership qualities anyone can detect) As a pastor, I also run a lot of meetings – our board, and multiple committees, as well as Bible studies and other classes, planning meetings for weddings and funerals, annual retreats and training events; on and on. If I was bad at running meetings, or even just average, many innocents would suffer.

Where does this skill come from? It comes from running games for the last 25 years of my life. Think about it.

Taking Turns

In a discussion, making sure that everyone has a turn is exactly like running a combat encounter. Making sure everyone has approximately equal time and spotlight, that everyone gets to try to move their agenda forward a step, etc., is part and parcel of the GM skill-set. As a bonus, you’d no more skip a POC or a woman in a meeting than you would skip the rogue or the fighter. You know everyone gets to have a turn each round, and you keep going in rounds until you are done.

Keeping Up Momentum

As a GM you have learned when to talk to move things along, and when to sit back and let people roleplay with each other. You know when things begin to lag and you need to step in and move the story forward. You know how to creatively interrupt people who are stuck in a cycle that isn’t going anywhere. This skill is immediately applicable to any meeting or event you are running – you can read when people are just spinning their wheels and when they’re getting things done.

Rules and Rulings

When GMing a game, you always have to keep the rules in mind, and not only understand them, but also know when to apply them and when not to. In theory, most meetings are run according to Robert’s Rules of Order – where we get motions, and tabling, and calling the question, and all that procedural stuff that makes C-Span so action-packed. But not only is there widely variable knowledge of Robert’s actual Rules, but there are plenty of times when it is best to just set them aside. And who knows better when to set rules aside for the greater good than a skilled GM?

Prep

As an experienced GM, prepping even for a complex or difficult meeting is made relatively easy. If there is a curriculum or an agenda already, that’s kind of like having an adventure module to run. You have to read through, plan for the possible pit-falls, sketch out a few ideas for improvising, and you’re ready to go.

I tend to create things like retreats or classes form scratch, though. It can be a bit of a challenge, but honestly it’s usually nothing compared to prepping for a four-hour game session every week, where I have to keep five adults entertained while also telling a story, keeping rules in mind, adjudicating questions and debates, and juggling the agendas of every member of the supporting cast.

Go Run Awesome Games (and Meetings)

Compared to GMing a good game, running a good meeting is easy. I’m sometimes shocked at how bad some people are at it, but then I remember that they have not spent hours a week for 25 years prepping for, or playing in, RPGs. I have a feeling my 10,000 hours is long past, actually.

So everyone in every white-collar industry that features frequent meetings should start playing RPGs, is what I’m saying. Those of you who want to run good meetings should learn to be good GMs. As a bonus, you’ll be starting in on literally the best hobby there is, period.

You’re even welcome at my games – Friday and Sunday nights. I’ll show you how it’s done.

Suicide

I do not like telling stories about myself. It isn’t that I think people should not tell stories about themselves generally (though memoir is one of my least favorite genres of writing) – if you have a story to tell, more power to you. I just feel like…the stories I have to tell are about other people. Mostly made up people, if you get down to it. Make of that what you will.

I don’t think my life is particularly interesting, and I also have a really bad memory. I don’t remember whole swathes of my life, for reasons I can only guess at and don’t want to get into. Suffice to say, in the rare event that someone tells a story of something they remember me saying or doing, especially years ago, there’s a good chance I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. They say that people with depression have smaller hippocampuses, and maybe that has something to do with it, I don’t know.

But I listened to Mike Perna’s episode of Bard and Bible a few days ago, and I decided, OK, I’ll tell a few brief Doug stories. These stories are about suicide, so if you don’t want that, now you know to skip this post. (These are not all of my stories about suicide, but they are the ones I’m telling today) I respect your time, so I’ll keep them as brief as I can while still maybe making sense.

First, I’m perpetually the New Guy, and before that, was perpetually the New Kid. I counted, and I’ve moved 24 times in my 37 years of life. No, I’m not a military brat or anything like that. I’ve just moved a lot – with my family as a kid, then as an adolescent, then as an adult.

As the perpetual New (Fat, Nerdy, Short) Kid, I had to sharpen my natural defenses. The key was always humor. After being pretty steadily beaten up and bullied and made fun of up through elementary school, I put together that if I was able to be consistently funny I would generally be safe. Not all the time, but most of the time. Being my dad’s fifth child and my mom’s third child meant lax parenting, so I watched a lot of late-night TV even as a kid. I watched a lot of comedy specials, and as much as I could, I’d absorb them, and then replay them at school with my own spin in order to shield myself with laughter. By Middle School I had a pretty solid repertoire of Robin Williams and Richard Pryor, among others, and was always someone who was trying to be funny. All this to say, Robin Williams in particular saved me from a lot of ass-kickings. Beyond that, he always seemed like an amazing person. He’s a lifelong hero, the kind of rare, wild genius that I feel privileged to have shared the world with.

Next, I’m a teenager and I have a crush on this girl. She and I are really close friends, actually. We hang out a lot; when I sneak out, it is to go hang out with her. She knows I have this boundless teenage love for her, and she does not feel the same way, and we’re both aware of all of that. It was what it was. But I’d take what I could get, so we spent a lot of time together.

One night, I’m dropping her off at home (I had an early birthday and was an early driver among my friends), and she tells me that she’s going to commit suicide. I beg her not to, but she has made up her mind, tells me goodbye, gets out of the car and goes inside. I’m just sobbing in this Chevy Blazer for I don’t know how long. Eventually she comes back out, gets back in, and tells me that she won’t. If I’ll stop crying, and go home and go to sleep, she promises she won’t.

Then she does.

Next, a year or two later, I’m in my dad’s office. It’s very late, and I’m so depressed and upset and angry and sick of the shitshow of being alive that I have taken down the case where he keeps a revolver. Six bullets shine in little shaped holes like board game pieces. (Not a simile I thought of at the time) With shaking hands I open the mechanism that lets the cylinder fall to the side and I start putting a bullet in each chamber. Why more than the one bullet I’d be using? I have no idea. Symmetry, maybe.

I remember the nauseating weight of it in my hand.

I hold the gun, hands still shaking, feeling like I’m going to throw up a clot of darkness out of the pit of my insides; thinking about whether I’ll feel the impact of the bullet to the side of my head, or just feel a hot dry shove and then nothing, or what. Will I go to Hell, or just fall and never hit the bottom?

I would love to say that Jesus came to me then, or that I thought about the people who loved me and how I’d hurt them, or what it would be like for my dad to wake up to a bang and find my brains all over his shelves. I thought of those things, but I had already thought of those things, and yet there I was in that room, in that moment, weighing whether to end everything because that would also end the pain of being. I knew I would hurt people, but I thought they were misguided. They didn’t understand, would be better off without me.

What happened was, I hit bottom. Whatever step there was before the very last step – that’s where I stopped. I felt like I had fallen a long way, but had slammed into a cold concrete floor, and would not fall any further. I would hurt horribly, would be miserable, but I would not fall farther than that. Not now, anyway.

Feeling like I was going to pass out, I put the gun and bullets back exactly as I found them, went back to my room, told no one. I’d continue to fantasize about killing myself for the next fifteen or so years, but never did it. Obviously.

Next, I’m working as a barista in San Anselmo, California, while going to seminary. I’m at Marin Coffee Roasters and in walks Robin Williams. My hero. The shimmering barrier of humor between me and innumerable ass-kickings. The guy who, for all intents and purposes, is the person I want to be. Yes, he suffers from depression, I’ve read all about that and his marriage troubles and his drug abuse and so on – but he does all of these things and is also world-famous for being hilarious and wonderful. Meanwhile, I’m a broke, depressed Seminary student. He did things in the world – I was just a fan. Yeah, I’d trade lives with the guy, no question.

He was a big bike-rider at the time, and Marin Coffee Roasters was kind of a bike hangout, so he comes in and orders a small mocha. I make him his small mocha, and he says thanks; shares a small smile. I am literally clamping down on all of the things I want to tell him, just boiling up inside of me, because honestly he looks exhausted and I don’t want to impose on the guy. Well, I want to follow him home like a whimpering puppy and hope he takes me in, but the mocha is all I give him.

Last, Robin Williams commits suicide on August 11th, 2014 – three years ago today. Three years later I’m still basically without words. He got to that moment, and bottom for him was just one step farther down than it was for me. He fell past where I stopped, and that was that. The person I desperately wanted to be for years was dead, and I was alive.

And then Prince, and then Chris Cornell, and then Chester Bennington, about whom Mike Perna spoke so eloquently on the Bard and Bible podcast, which set this post in motion.

If you want someone to talk to, I am always available, for this, for anyone, any time. I don’t advertise that, but maybe I should. I have talked to other people who have been in that place, and I have been there, or somewhere like it.

You can also talk to other people who want to help, and who want you to live.

I don’t have a conclusion for this. No summation, no lesson to walk away with. Just what I wrote. Just that and no more.

D&D Hack: A Scarlet Letter

Image result for scarlet letter M

Previously I posted about adapting D&D so that combat is no longer fatal, which I have yet to test, but I thought of a deeper idea to add to that hack: a scarlet letter. Obviously I’m referring back to the Hawthorne novel, but in this case, a different letter with a different meaning.

First, start with D&D and the additional hack or house rule that combat is no longer fatal. When a character or monster is beaten down to 0 or negative hit points, what it represents is that they are defeated, but not necessarily dead. But in conversation with my friend and collaborator Aric, we thought that this house rule would make it more interesting when a foe or monster did want to fight to the death. It would be all the more threatening in a setting where the players had gotten used to these non-lethal combats as the norm.

Now, the addition. I thought it would be interesting if only monsters who could be killed were able to kill. And I thought it would be interesting if this was marked out on the character sheet somehow. So, for example, if a player wants their character to be able to kill a monster or another NPC, they just wrote “Monster” on the character sheet, or checked the Monster box or something. Then I thought it would be even more interesting if this mark was literal, in the game world itself. The character marks themselves with a red “M.” If a foe or monster is marked with a red “M” then you know ahead of time that this is a fight to the death. Only creatures with a “M” can kill. It’s definitely a meta-game element, something akin to a creature having a red outline in a video game, or some other visual marker that is obvious to the player but not literally part of the fictional world.

I thought this was really interesting. You have to take that step, identify yourself as a monster, in order to kill your enemies, but you are vulnerable to any creature with the ‘scarlet letter.’ Is this too heavy-handed? Maybe. It could be interesting for a convention game, maybe, or a game with kids. I like, as an experiment, that it is a visible distinction that you have to make. It’s a clear choice, and of course, there is probably no way to remove the “M” once it’s in place. (Maybe an atonement spell? That would give that spell a really cool purpose)

How to explain this mark? Maybe the PCs are part of a simulation, or an alien experiment on violent behavior, or inmates in a magical prison. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a weird thing about the world, like aboleths and Vancian magic. I mean, it’s not like D&D makes sense to start with. But I like how this plays with the old D&D trope of some intelligent creatures being “monsters” – having something intrinsic about them that makes them stand out as threats. I like applying this to the PCs and non-“monster” races. I do have to think more about how to implement it, though.

It makes me think of Mist-Robed Gate, an indie rpg by Shreyas Sampat with a mechanic whereby, if you want to try to kill another character, you literally stab their character sheet with a knife. There are other games I’ve read about where you point a knife at a character at the table if you are attacking them, or outwardly mark lethal intent in other ways, but I like the idea of an obvious move that opens up the possibility of lethality when that isn’t the norm. The ‘scarlet letter’ M is just another way to do that.

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The Hunger Games

 

Hunger Games is an amazing movie.  I hesitate to call it “perfect”, but I didn’t notice any flaws at all.  The book is fantastic, and the movie is faithful to the book while still being a powerful film adaptation.  In my view, it wins both as an adaptation of a specific work, and also as a dystopian sci-fi story on it’s own.

The performances are all solid and distinct, but Jennifer Lawrence is pitch-perfect throughout.  Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy is superb typecasting, and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna paralleled, for me at least, the effect that Cinna has in the books – a small breath of genuine, while still ambivalent, benevolence in the midst of an ongoing moral horror story.

It was a relief to watch a movie where everything isn’t spelled out for you.  There are plenty of silent moments where the strength of the acting carries the scene, rather than being handed exposition as is so common in movies.  It has the effect on me that the same kind of storytelling does in prose – showing, instead of telling, makes the emotions and conflicts much more immediate.

I love this story because it is moving, alarming, angry, intelligent and ambivalent in all the right ways.  Dystopia – nailed.  Subtle paranoia – nailed.  Roman/Nazi pageantry of violence – nailed.  Starkly drawn characters who draw you in – nailed.  Lord of the Flies for a reality TV age – nailed.  Almost making me cry in the first ten minutes – nailed, and only Up has had a similar effect that early in the story.

Now I need to grab my wife’s Kindle and read the next two books.  This movie definitely lifted Catching Fire and Mockingjay to the top of my very tall reading pile.

Overall, I give it 9.5 out of 10 Mockingjay pins.  Riveting, and it only loses the .5 because I didn’t actually cry (which I did at the beginning of Up).

Writing A Sample Scenario for Parsec

Back in the saddle again.
With the layout almost complete for Parsec, we find that we have 7 or 8 pages yet to fill. There will be a couple adds for other games from Jolly Roger Games of course, but it also turns out I’ll be writing up at least one sample scenario for the game.
It’s very odd coming back to something that I basically finished writing almost two years ago now, which has spent a lot of the intervening time in stasis, and trying to write for it.  Possible, but odd.  I know for a fact that my style has changed significantly since I began the project, as have some of my thoughts about games themselves.  I guess I just hope that I can make it so the two years don’t show, and aren’t jarring to the reader.
I’m just going to use one of the playtesting scenarios that I used, called “Stealing the Drake”.  It’s all about this group that is brought together to steal a near-priceless, top-secret FLT drive from the world government.  It’s kind of like Shadowrun, only without magic or Elves, and with zero-G.  The other playtest scenario I ran played with the idea of freedom fighter versus terrorist, and I’m not sure that’s a great one to put in the core book.  
That scenario can come in the “Uncomfortable Moral Ambiguity” supplement – which, now that I think about it, I’d really like to write.

#h2o4all

Well, it’s the 24th of the month, which means I need to post about water issues.  The idea, you see, is that on the 24th of each month, a bunch of people will write blogs and post to facebook and tweet about water issues, and that if we get enough people doing this, we will make a significant ::ahem:: “splash” and possibly foster greater awareness and even action.

It is very early, but I want to briefly talk about Advent Conspiracy.  Advent Conspiracy is a group of people of faith who actually think that the Christmas season should be about helping people who are poor, vulnerable and dying from preventable causes instead of a hysterical orgy of consumerism.  400+ billion dollars are spent each holiday season on…stuff.  What if we took 10% of that and spent it on living, breathing human beings who need access to clean water in order to go on living and breathing?

How many people can be provided with clean water for 40 billion dollars a year?  Damn, I bet it’s a lot.  Why don’t we find out together?

For more information on h2o4all, check out the website for Unco-nditional.  It’ll explain from whence the idea came.  If you tweet, blog or post to Facebook regularly, consider being part of h2o4all.  Check us out on Twitter with the hashtag #h2o4all (but you knew that already, didn’t you?  Smarty.)